Finding the Role of Culture in ‘Nature vs. Nurture’

Reported by Raleigh McElvery ’16

Ariye Krassner ’14

Ariye Krassner ’14

Compared to an American childhood, does a Danish upbringing make for a happier kid? Traditionally, temperament has been considered an innate, biologically determined trait, but Associate Professor of Psychology Samuel Putnam and Ariye Krassner ’14 have reason to believe that there’s more to the story. Under Putnam’s supervision, Krassner has developed a senior honors project focusing on the effects of Danish versus American culture on infant disposition.

It all started when Krassner, while studying abroad in Denmark last spring, worked with researchers at the University of Copenhagen to examine interactions between mothers and young children throughout development. While her study began as an exploration of parental and environmental influences on temperament, it turned into a cross-cultural analysis upon her return to the United States. Krassner worked with Putnam to replicate the same procedures, this time using American families as her study subjects.

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Sam Putnam

“We want to see whether temperament traits vary between infants in the U.S. and Denmark,” Krassner said, “and if there’s a relationship between the interactions that we see between moms and babies and the temperament characteristics of those babies.” She and Putnam have collected most of their data and are in the process of sifting through video footage of mother-infant sessions. With collaboration from a Danish colleague, Krassner has created a coding scheme to convert the raw footage into numbers, by measuring the presence and frequency of particular behaviors (such as “affectionate maternal touch”) that were captured on film.

After comparing her American data to data contributed by the Danish group, Krassner has made some tentative conclusions. For instance, Danish children appear to experience less negative emotion – such as frustration, fear, and sadness – than their American counterparts. While Denmark is often deemed one of the happiest countries in the world, Krassner noted, she finds it particularly interesting that this tendency may also apply to 13-month-old babies.

She speculates that early educational experiences may be key. “Danish children are often encouraged to be more independent,” she said. “They are better at playing in small groups, and they seem to have more socially appropriate ways of interacting with each other at an early age.” These skills may be related to better impulse control, Krassner said. “But of course, it’s both nature and nurture,” she added, since a child’s ability to control impulses may be partly inherited and partly learned from his or her parents. “There’s a mixture of biological and environmental factors.”

This July Krassner and Putnam will be heading to Berlin, Germany, for an international conference concerning child development. The pair submitted three abstracts of their work (two of which list Krassner as first author), and all three abstracts were accepted by the conference. As for Krassner’s future endeavors, she plans to attend medical school or pursue a Ph.D. in Psychology, and in either case hopes to continue her work with Putnam after graduating this spring.

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