The Downside of Positivity

Photograph courtesy of Sam PutnamReported by Catherine Yochum ’15

Is there a negative side to positivity? Psychology researcher Cynthia Stifter explores that question in “exuberant” children – kids who are more positive and active than their peers, yet may also be more likely to show behavioral problems due to their impulsivity, interest in novelty, and lack of fear.

Stifter, a professor of human development and psychology at Pennsylvania State University – and the former graduate advisor of Bowdoin’s Associate Professor of Psychology Samuel Putnam - recently spoke about her research to a full audience of Bowdoin students and faculty in Kanbar Hall. Stifter and Putnam have published five papers together, analyzing exuberance and other aspects of temperament and behavior in early childhood.

One of their studies measured two-year-olds’ responses to a variety of stimuli, such as the sound of a vacuum cleaner or the sensation of entering a room. Stifter and Putnam found that children differed in their tendencies to approach or withdraw from the stimulus, as well as in the positive and negative emotions they displayed. Those visible emotional responses helped distinguish children who held back out of fear from those who were just uninterested.

Exuberant children showed high positive emotions, low negative emotions, and high approach behavior. “A Child Behavioral Checklist” administered at the same time to parents showed that these children also tended to show more problematic behavior than their more inhibited peers. These results held true when the checklist was administered to the same group two and a half years later.

But there’s more to the story: exuberance doesn’t necessarily equate with behavioral problems. According to Stifter, a child’s temperament includes not only how the child reacts to stimuli, but also how the child modulates that reaction. To study that second aspect of temperament, Stifter measured children’s reactions to receiving an unwanted gift, to see how they regulated their disappointment. She found that some exuberant children were able to regulate their emotions – exhibiting behaviors such as saying “thank you” and smiling at the researcher who gave them the gift – and that those children were less likely to show problematic behavior than those who pouted and openly expressed their dislike for the toy.

Recognizing the importance of emotional regulation in exuberant children has implications for parenting. In further studies on interactions between parents and their exuberant children, Stifter found that the most successful parents were those who helped regulate their children using positive tones. These parents “capitalize on the fact that the [exuberant] child expresses and feels positivity a lot more,” Stifter said. She added that effective mothers of exuberant children used buzzwords such as “neat” and “new,” taking advantage of the children’s interest in novelty to encourage them to switch tasks.

Stifter’s research also encompasses the relationship between emotional regulation and physical health: currently she is examining how using food to soothe an infant’s non-hunger-related distress may lead not only to weight gain in infancy, but also to the child having a future association between food and comfort or reward.

Before Stifter’s work on exuberance, the majority of temperament studies focused on inhibited children, so her research fills an important gap. As a former exuberant child herself, Stifter says her project has personal significance as well. “Research is me-search,” she said. “Psychologists choose topics in order to find themselves.”

thumb:Jamie Tatham