Applied Psychology OPUS

The Development of Internal State Language: The Role of Age, Gender and Context

Cassie Wuest

Faculty Mentor | Dr. Adina Schick

Through early conversations with caregivers, young children learn to attribute internal states to themselves and others (Recchia & Howe, 2008). The integration of internal state words into children’s vocabularies is gradual. Young children (i.e., 2 year olds) begin using internal state words that reference emotions, intentions, and compulsions; cognition words are first used shortly before they enter the preschool classroom (Ferres, 2003). As children begin to integrate internal state words into their storytelling, they demonstrate the ability to reflect on not only their own internal states, but also the internal states of others (Pascual et al., 2008). In this way, they exhibit early evidence of perspective-taking, a crucial skill in the development of early social relationships. To date, however, very few studies have looked at preschool-aged children’s use of internal state language as they independently narrate across a variety of narrative contexts. Thus, little is known about how children display their burgeoning perspective-taking abilities in their independent storytelling, without caregiver support. Results of contemporary research on the role of gender in internal state language use is also mixed, as only some studies have found gender differences in the types and/or number of internal state words used by preschoolers (Zaman & Fivush, 2013). Thus, the current study sought to investigate patterns in preschool children’s internal state word usage in regards to their representation of the self and other, with a particular focus on variations across age, gender, and narrative context.

As part of a larger study, 103 children, recruited from 12 preschool classrooms in New York City, completed a series of three narrative tasks: sharing a personal narrative, “reading” a wordless picture book, and spontaneously producing a narrative using story stems from the MacArthur Story Stem Battery (Emde, Wolfe, & Oppenheim, 2003). All narratives have been transcribed and verified at the utterance level using a standardized system. Child internal state word usage was coded for type (i.e., positive emotion, negative emotion, cognition, intention, and compulsion), as well as referent (i.e., self, human other, or animal other). Data was analyzed using a combination of descriptive statistics, t-tests, and ANCOVAs. Results suggest that, though children’s use of internal states is highly variable, children use very few internal state words as they independently narrate; the majority of which are emotion and intention words. Further, the current study found that children’s use of internal states varies by age and narrative context, but failed to find significant differences by gender. Moreover, an interaction effect was found in children’s internal state use between age, gender, and narrative context. Additionally, children’s references to others varied significantly by age and gender. Findings expand on previous research by highlighting the unique role of narrative context in children’s internal state language use, and suggest that the role of age and gender in children’s internal state language is largely affected by narrative context.