A matter of habit? Early life stress and cognitive flexibility in infants
Taylor, C. (2017). A matter of habit? Early life stress and cognitive flexibility in infants (Thesis, Master of Social Sciences (MSocSc)). The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/11783
Permanent Research Commons link: https://hdl.handle.net/10289/11783
The long-term associations between chronic early life stress such as maltreatment, and cognitive functioning are well documented. However, less is known about the relation between early life stress exposure through experiences of more common potentially stressful life events such as parental separation or moving to a new house, and specific aspects of cognitive functioning in the short term. Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to shift between response strategies and employ alternative strategies. It is an important ability for successful adaption to changing or novel situations. Previous research has shown that under acute stress, 15-month-old infants display elevated levels of rigid behaviour, being less likely to disengage from performing a habitual action that is no longer effective than their non-stressed counterparts. The present study explores the relation between experiences of potentially stressful early life events and infants’ tendency to display this pattern of behaviour that is, cognitive flexibility. Thirty-one 14- to 16-month-old infants participated in an instrumental learning task in their own homes. The task involved the infants initially learning to push two buttons. Each button lit up and produced its own distinct sound when pushed. Next, to establish a habit of button pushing (habit-acquisition), infants were allowed to push one of the buttons until they did not push the button for a period of time (10-s). Finally, at test, infants were given access to both buttons. Pushing the buttons did not result in any light or sound effects. Infants’ behaviour during test was assessed. Increased engagement with the habituated button relative to engagement with both buttons was taken as a measure of reduced cognitive flexibility. Participants’ caregivers indicated the number and severity of any potentially stressful life events that had occurred for the family during the prenatal and postnatal period. Analyses revealed no significant associations between frequency or severity of stressful life events – experienced during the prenatal or postnatal period – and rigid habitual behaviour in infants. This suggests that potentially stressful early life events do not necessarily lead to higher levels of rigid behaviour in infants. Possible explanations of the present findings are discussed.
The University of Waikato
All items in Research Commons are provided for private study and research purposes and are protected by copyright with all rights reserved unless otherwise indicated.
- Masters Degree Theses