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Self- and Social-RegulationExploring the Relations Between Social Interaction, Social Understanding, and the Development of Executive Functions$

Bryan Sokol, Ulrich Muller, Jeremy Carpendale, Arlene Young, and Grace Iarocci

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780195327694

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195327694.001.0001

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A Bidirectional View of Executive Function and Social Interaction

A Bidirectional View of Executive Function and Social Interaction

(p.292) 12 A Bidirectional View of Executive Function and Social Interaction
Self- and Social-Regulation

Suzanne Hala

Penny Pexman

Emma Climie

Kristin Rostad

Melanie Glenwright

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

In this chapter, we explore the idea that the relation between social interaction and executive functions might be best characterized as bi-directionaldirectional. That is, that while developing executive function abilities almost definitely have considerable impact on emerging social understanding in young children, social interactions may also provide significant impetus for executive development. Working from a broadly Piagetian framework we include two avenues of exploration to illustrate. The first is that social collaboration on a problem might facilitate executive processes. Here we use the example of a collaboration on a strategic deception task. The second is that exposure to the ambiguous nature of social interactions may force the child to exercise more executive control, resulting in advances in various aspects of executive function. For examples, we draw from two research literatures—children's understanding of sarcasm and children's ability to grapple with acquiring more than one language.

Keywords:   cognitive development, executive function, social interaction, sarcasm, bilingual development, Piaget, strategic deception

I think that, in addition to developmental factors—heredity or the maturation of the nervous system, external physical experience, the social milieu, language, and so forth—equilibration … plays a major role: the fact that the subject tries to give the maximum degree of coherence to his ideas and to resolve contradictions … The theory isn't perfect yet.


In fitting with the overall goal of this volume, in this chapter we address the question of the nature of the relation between social interaction and executive functions (EF). As pointed out by Moses and Tahiroglu (chapter 9, this volume) as well as others, the relation may be highly complex, not uniform, and, not a one-way direction of influence. It is this latter point, that, in fact, the relation between the growth of EF abilities and emerging social understanding may well be discovered to be bidirectional in nature that we take as our guiding theme. As this volume attests, there is already a substantial body of research that points to a strong relation between EF development and the development of social understanding (e.g., Carlson & Moses, 2001; Carlson, Moses, & Breton, 2002; Carlson, Moses, & Hix, 1998; Hala, Hug, & Henderson, 2003; Hala & Russell, 2001; Hughes, 1998b; Zelazo, Carter, Reznick, & Frye, 1997.)

EF is an “umbrella term” that covers a somewhat diverse collection of cognitive functions associated with the prefrontal cortex. In recent years, researchers have been working toward identifying precisely those dimensions of EF that are most highly related to developing social understanding. Taken (p.293) together, the picture that is emerging is that those executive measures that require a degree of inhibitory control as well as working memory demands (labeled “conflict tasks” by Carlson and her colleagues; e.g., Carlson et al., 2002) are consistently found to be the executive measures most strongly correlated with social understanding measures such as theory of mind (ToM) assessments (Carlson et al., 2002; Hala et al., 2003).

As Moses and Tahiroglu (Chapter 9, this volume) point out it is the exact nature of that relation that has yet to be well defined. Certainly, it seems reasonable to suggest that increases in EF abilities allow for the emergence of more sophisticated social understanding. One type of evidence offering support for this view comes from those few longitudinal studies that have been carried out so far (Brophy, Talor, & Hughes, 2002; Carlson, Mandell, & Williams, 2004; Hughes, Cutting, & Dunn, 2001). In general, these researchers have found that EF ability at an earlier age is a predictor of later ToM development, but that the reverse does not hold. Recent cross-cultural research, however, has found that more advanced EF ability does not guarantee more advanced ToMunderstanding (Sabbagh, Xu, Carlson, Moses, & Lee, 2006). Though much more longitudinal as well as cross-cultural research is needed to provide additional support for the possibility that executive abilities provide a crucial foundation for more sophisticated social understanding, what evidence there is suggests this to be the case. Nonetheless, even if we can safely conclude that EF abilities provide essential support for many aspects of social understanding, a crucial question remains only partially answered in the existing literature. How does EFing itself develop?

EF abilities are generally accepted to reside primarily in the prefrontal cortex (Pennington & Ozonoff, 1996; Roberts & Pennington, 1996; Welsh, Pennington, & Groisser, 1991). The early childhood years—the developmental period most studied with reference to the relation of EF to social understanding—are also the years during which an intense period of development of synaptic density and myelination occurs (Huttenlocher, 1990; Johnson, 2005; Thompson et al., 2000.). Indeed measures used to assess aspects of prefrontal functioning, for example, planning and working memory, approach adult levels by adolescence (Luciana, 2003; Luciana & Nelson, 1998; Nelson & Luciana, 2001). Although the development of the prefrontal cortex is so protracted, enormous advances are found in the preschool years—precisely the years corresponding to significant advances in performance of behavioral measures of EF (Carlson et al., 2002). As such, obviously biological maturation plays a role in supporting the development of EF abilities.

Nevertheless, biological maturation is insufficient, on its own, to account for the advances in EF found in the childhood years. Brain development, ergo executive development, does not exist in an environmental vacuum, either (p.294) physically or socially. There is significant evidence that brain development itself is experience dependent (see Nelson, de Haan, & Thomas, 2006; Westermann et al., 2007). Although much of the research is based on animal models, some researchers of human development have found evidence that social experience may be related to alterations in brain functioning (e.g., Beers & De Bellis, 2002; Fishbein, 2001).

There are also numerous studies that indicate that differences in environment may well be related to differences in development of EF. For example, Sabbagh et al. (2006) found that children in China who spoke Cantonese performed at a higher level than their Western English-speaking counterparts in North America on measures of EF. These authors posit that something about the environment of the Chinese children may foster this cognitive development, be it the structure of the language or differences in socialization practices.

What we take from this type of evidence is that the environment, social and otherwise, has a reciprocal impact on the development of executive abilities. This impact could be obstructing, as in the case, for example, of the maltreated children in the Beers and De Bellis (2002) study. Alternatively, the effect could be facilitating, as in the case of the Chinese children in the Sabbagh et al. (2006) study. For the purposes of our chapter, we focus on the potential ways in which the social world might positively facilitate both the development and the expression of EF abilities.

Although there are, no doubt, numerous ways in which EF development and social interactions could be intertwined, we will limit ourselves to an illustration of two promising avenues of exploration. The first is the role that collaboration on a problem might play in facilitating executive processes. Here we will use the example of collaboration on a strategic deception task, the windows task, developed by Russell and his colleagues (Russell, Mauthner, Sharpe, & Tidswell, 1991). The second is the idea that exposure to the somewhat ambiguous nature of social interactions may force the child to exercise more executive control, resulting in advances in various aspects of EF. To illustrate, we will draw from two recent research literatures—children's understanding of sarcasm and, in a somewhat different vein, children's ability to grapple with acquiring more than one language. For the former, we provide an example by way of new research from our laboratory.

Collaboration and Executive Function

We turn now to an illustration of the role that collaboration may play in fostering increased executive control. The development of strategic deception in young children arguably can be considered a marker of the ability (p.295) to understand that other people can be led into believing something that is not true. As such, deceptive ability is considered one of the hallmarks of having a “theory of mind,” or more specifically in this case, understanding that beliefs may be false. The research regarding the emergence of deceptive ability is mixed. Some researchers conclude that at 3 years of age children are not yet capable of deception (Peskin, 1992; Ruffman, Olson, Ash, & Keenan, 1993; Russell, Jarrold, & Potel, 1994; Russell et al., 1991; Sodian, Taylor, Harris, & Perner, 1991). In contrast, other researchers find ample evidence for deception at this tender age (Chandler, Fritz, & Hala, 1989; Hala & Chandler, 1996; Hala, Chandler, & Fritz, 1991; Polak & Harris, 1999). In addition, the naturalistic observation work of Judy Dunn and her colleagues (Dunn, 1991, 1994) as well as Newton, Reddy, and Bull (2000) points to an even earlier onset of 2 years of age when children are observed in naturalistic settings, especially with their siblings.

One potential reason for the differences between these discrepant groups of research findings has been linked to the executive demands of some of the strategic deception tasks, most notably the windows task and other similar tasks that pit the child's interests against an opponent's (Carlson et al., 1998; Hala & Russell, 2001). In the windows task (Russell et al., 1991), children sit across a table from an opponent. On the table between them are two opaque boxes with transparent “windows” cut into the side facing the child. One box is baited with a treat. Children are told that if the opponent finds the treat then the opponent will keep the treat but that if the opponent fails to find the treat then the treat is awarded to the child. Children are instructed to point to the box they want the opponent to open. This task is notoriously difficult for 3-year-old children who typically point to the baited box, even after repeated failures resulting in the negative feedback of surrendering the treat to the opponent. As pointed out by Hala and Russell, however, the windows task is not only a test of strategic deception, but a test of executive control as well. In executive terms, to succeed on the windows task children must (1) inhibit the prepotent response to point to where the treat is and (2) remember the rule that any treats found by the opponent are lost to the child.

In a series of experiments, Hala and Russell (2001) manipulated the weight of the executive demands found in the standard version of the windows task. More specifically, these researchers introduced experimental procedures designed to reduce the inhibitory demands of the task. To accomplish this, they provided participants with various artificial media to indicate the box for the opponent to open. In the standard version of the task, children are required to point with their own extended finger to the chosen box. In the reduced inhibitory control versions, children indicated their choice using either a “pointer” or by placing a cardboard star on top of the chosen box. (p.296) All the artificial media conditions were effective in producing higher levels of success in 3-year-old children. In an earlier related study, Carlson et al. (1998) found comparable results using a strategic deception task with opaque boxes rather than “windows” boxes. These researchers concluded that use of artificial media enabled children to distance themselves from the prepotent response of veridical pointing, which in turn allowed children to be more reflective about their strategies.

It is certainly impressive that reduction of inhibitory demands through the use of “mechanical means” allows for better performance on a task that could be argued to be obstensively social. Nevertheless, Hala and Russell (2001) asked an additional question—whether a less “mechanical” manipulation would also facilitate performance. Specifically, is there a role of social collaboration in allowing for greater executive control in the windows task? In order to answer this question empirically, these researchers introduced a manipulation in which children were told that they were on a “team” with the principal experimenter—the “ally condition.” The teamwork consisted of the child telling the collaborating experimenter which box to point to when the opponent returned to the room. Then, when the opponent was brought back in, it was the experimenter who simply followed the child's instructions. This manipulation resulted in performance that was far superior to the standard version of the task, in which the child points to the box in the presence of the opponent. To ensure that children were not performing better for the reason that they felt greater impunity from blame because they themselves were not seen to be the agent of the deception, Hala and Russell included a condition wherein, without any supporting rationale, children were instructed to first indicate to the experimenter which box the opponent was to open, but, as in the ally condition, it was the experimenter who carried out the actual pointing in the presence of the opponent. In contrast to the ally condition, this latter condition produced performance that was no better than in the standard version.

In a subsequent study, Hala and Russell (2001) went on to further rule out the possibility that the success of the ally condition was not due to a reduction of social apprehension, but instead that it indeed was the collaborative aspect that was facilitating strategic performance. After all, having the experimenter simply take up the role of a pointer without any explanation may have been confusing to the children in the previous study. In this second study, Hala and Russell included a new condition as well as the ally condition (described earlier) and the standard version of the windows task. In the new condition, children were instructed that they were on a team with the experimenter, as in the ally condition, but that they would be the ones to both select the box as well as point to the selected box when the opponent returned. In this way, any potential social apprehension that may have been experienced by children (p.297) in standard versions of the task should be kept intact. The results from this second study indicated that children adopted the appropriate strategy of indicating the empty box irrespective of the opponent's presence.

Hala and Russell (2001) interpret the success of the ally manipulations as being the result of a type of cognitive “distancing” that is achieved when the child is nudged into adopting a third-person perspective. Specifically, these authors suggest that having children act on behalf of a collaborating second agent may help push the child to interpret the pointing as a more publicly committed act. Taking this more public stance subsequently results in a kind of psychological distancing, wherein the child is afforded a separation from the immediate goal of obtaining the treat for themselves. That is, by encouraging the child to view the action from a third person's point of view, and not just the perspective of the child in direct opposition with a competitor, the ally condition allows the child to exercise greater inhibitory control—enough to inhibit pointing to the desired treat (see also Prencipe & Zelazo, 2005). This interpretation is entirely in keeping with the tone of the current volume. Specifically, stated in social context terms, the success of the child in misdirecting the opponent is rooted in the child's ability to muster the necessary inhibitory control as a consequence of the partnership with the second agent.

We are not claiming that, in this case, social understanding (i.e., understanding deception and, as a corollary, false belief understanding) is a direct consequence of the social interaction. Instead, we suggest that there is a very complex interrelation between EF and social interaction that results in increased social understanding. We propose, as do others, that the relation is bidirectional, with EF development not only influencing, but being influenced by, social interactions. To be clear, we are not talking about a notion of “scaffolding,” wherein a more advanced partner assists the child to reach their potential level of social understanding, though a Vygotskian scholar may certainly argue this point. Rather, we are suggesting that social interactions might place significant challenges on current executive abilities, which subsequently “stretch” to facilitate increased social understanding.

To elaborate, many social interactions are ambiguous in nature. We cannot always be certain what another person means, or predict how they will act. Intentions can be difficult to infer from verbal and nonverbal behaviors in social exchanges. This ambiguity may, in Piagetian terms (Piaget, 1977), provide the very sort of cognitive conflict that throws a child into disequilibration (for fuller discussions, see Chapman & McBride, 1992; Doise & Mugny, 1984; Perret-Clermont, 1980). In attempting to strive toward regaining equilibration, the child may have to exercise increased executive control, a development supported by a complex interaction of experience and experience-expectant brain development.

(p.298) Verbal Irony Comprehension and Executive Function

One type of social interaction that is ambiguous, and thus may challenge children's EF skills, is conversation that involves verbal irony. Verbal irony is pervasive in everyday communication. It is present in conversations between friends and strangers (Gibbs, 2000), on television programs for children and for adults (Dews & Winner, 1997), and in computer-mediated conversations (Hancock & Dunham, 2001). In its most conventional form verbal irony is commonly referred to as sarcasm and involves saying something positive to mean something negative, as in “you look gorgeous today,” said to someone who looks disheveled. We will refer to this type of remark as ironic criticism.

It is believed that speakers go to the trouble of using irony, and in so doing risk possible misunderstanding, because irony serves a number of important communicative functions. In particular, irony allows the speaker to mute their critical or complimentary intent (Dews, Kaplan, & Winner, 1995; Pexman & Olineck, 2002a). Irony also allows the speaker to mock or tease someone (Kreuz, Long, & Church, 1991; Pexman & Zvaigzne, 2004) and to be humorous (e.g., Colston & Keller, 1998; Colston & O'Brien, 2000; Kreuz et al., 1991; Pexman & Olineck, 2002b; Roberts & Kreuz, 1994). In these and other ways irony provides an opportunity for significant interactional payoff. Yet the incongruity inherent in irony, between the speaker's tone and the speaker's words, may pose an interpretive challenge for children (e.g., Morton, Trehub, & Zelazo, 2003).

In order to appreciate verbal irony, a listener must detect the discrepancy between the speaker's beliefs and the literal sense of the speaker's utterance. The listener must infer that the speaker does not intend their statement to be taken literally; instead, the speaker's intent is to mock the literal sense of their statement (and anyone who would make such a remark) and make salient the difference between their belief and the belief conveyed by the literal sense of the remark. “Irony involves an interpretive relation between the speaker's thought and attributed thoughts or utterances” (Sperber & Wilson, 1995, p. 231). The perceiver must grasp the speaker's attitude and the relationship of that attitude toward the statement. Winner and Leekam (1991; also Dews & Winner, 1997; Sullivan, Winner, & Hopfield, 1995) argued that in order to understand irony the listener must recognize what the speaker actually believes, and also what the speaker wants the listener to believe.

As such, irony comprehension is a complex cognitive task and one that seems likely to depend on EF abilities. There is, in fact, considerable evidence for a connection between EF abilities and irony comprehension. In neuropsychological research irony comprehension has been linked to frontal lobe function. Shamay, Tomer, and Aharon-Peretz (2002) reported that adult (p.299) patients with frontal lobe lesions were impaired in their ability to interpret ironic remarks. Similarly, McDonald and Pearce (1996) reported that adult patients with frontal lobe damage from traumatic brain injury showed deficits in understanding sarcastic irony. When Shamay-Tsoory, Tomer, and Aharon-Peretz (2005) examined comprehension of ironic criticisms by adult patients with focal lesions they found that patients with right ventromedial prefrontal cortex lesions had particularly profound deficits in irony comprehension. Given what we know about the importance of the frontal lobes to EF abilities, it seems reasonable to make the inference that EF abilities are important to irony comprehension (McDonald, 2000).

In line with the strong relation between executive dysfunction and understanding irony we might well expect a corollary relation between the development of executive control and emerging understanding of irony in children. If this is the case, then, certainly, increased executive ability would facilitate increased understanding of the ambiguous social interaction of verbal irony. In keeping with the aim of this chapter, we propose that exposure to this nonliteral form of language may, in turn, facilitate development of increased EF.

When parents use verbal irony in conversation with or around children, they present children with a situation where the literal meaning of their utterance is incongruent with their intended meaning. In order to reconcile this incongruity the child will need to make complex mental state inferences and in doing so could make use of some of the cues and constraints that facilitate detection of irony. Certainly, there are intonational styles and facial expressions that can signal a speaker's ironic intent (Winner, 1988). In addition, when a speaker's statement is outEF of keeping with the preceding events and remarks this can be taken as a strong cue to irony (e.g., Colston, Gerrig, & Goldvarg, 2002; Ivanko & Pexman, 2003). Ironic remarks, and the cues that accompany them, present children with the potential for cognitive conflict. As children struggle to make sense of these remarks, this cognitive conflict could provide the impetus for them to expand their understanding of language to include the possibility of nonliteral interpretation.

There is research to suggest that many children begin to comprehend irony around 6 years of age (e.g., Ackerman, 1982, 1983, 1986; Demorest, Meyer, Phelps, Gardner, & Winner, 1984; Dews et al., 1996; Hancock, Dunham, & Purdy, 2000; Harris & Pexman, 2003; Winner et al., 1987), at least in the sense that they recognize a discrepancy between the speaker's belief and the speaker's statement for counterfactual irony. Comprehension continues to improve, and expands to include more complex forms of irony, throughout middle childhood (Pexman, Glenwright, Krol, & James, 2005).

It seems likely that when parents use verbal irony in their own speech, they provide children with opportunities to practice interpreting ironic remarks. (p.300) Exposure to verbal irony could provide children with instances upon which they can base their emerging concept of ironic language. As a result, parents who use verbal irony with some frequency may have children who are relatively proficient at interpreting such remarks. This possibility was tested in two experiments conducted at our university by Penny Pexman, Melanie Glenwright, Andrea Krol, and Tammy James. The children in these experiments were middle school aged (7- to 10-year-olds in the first experiment, 9- to 10-year-olds in the second), and as such they were beginning to develop appreciation for verbal irony. We asked the parents of these children to answer questions about their own tendencies to use verbal irony. We also measured their children's appreciation for verbal irony: the children's impressions of speaker belief (detecting that the speaker holds a belief that is opposite to the literal meaning of their statement) and speaker attitude (speaker intent to be mean in the case of an ironic criticism).

The parents' tendencies to use sarcastic irony were captured by their responses on a self-report survey. The questions on the survey comprised two factors, which we here call General and Risky. The questions on the General factor asked about parents' global tendencies with respect to sarcastic speech (e.g., how sarcastic are you?) and also about their tendencies to use sarcasm in typical circumstances (e.g., what is the likelihood that you would use sarcasm with your best friend? What is the likelihood that you would use sarcasm when criticizing someone?). The questions on the Risky factor asked about parents' tendencies to use sarcasm in situations of low inferability; situations where a sarcastic remark could easily be misinterpreted (e.g., what is the likelihood that you would use sarcasm with someone you just met?). The risk for misunderstanding is high between new acquaintances, and many people will only use irony when they are certain it will be understood as intended, as per Kreuz's (1996) heuristic of inferability. For a participant to say there is a likelihood that they would use irony in those risky circumstances suggests that they value the sarcastic speech form even when it is risky and are probably sarcastic even when inferability is low.

The children in the experiments participated in an interpretation task that involved a series of short puppet shows. At the end of each show one puppet made a remark to the other, and these remarks included ironic criticisms and literal criticisms. After every puppet show, each child was asked questions in order to assess their appreciation of ironic remarks. These included (1) a speaker belief question: Participants were asked whether the speaker meant what he or she said in order to assess whether the children interpreted the speaker's statement as a positive or negative evaluation. For example, “When Kate said ‘This cake is wonderful’, did Kate think Lucy made a good cake or a bad cake?” (2) A speaker attitude question: The second question referred to (p.301) the Nice/Mean Scale and children were asked to rate the speaker's attitude for their final remark (e.g., “When Kate said ‘This cake is wonderful’, show me how nice or mean she was trying to be”) by pointing to one of the faces on a 6-point mean/nice face scale.

In Experiment 1 the children were 7- to 10-year-olds and in their responses to the speaker belief and speaker attitude questions these children tended to be much more accurate for literal criticisms than for ironic criticisms. These accuracy differences were not surprising, and simply reflect the fact that children in this age range are not yet proficient at irony comprehension. Our real interest was in whether variability in these irony appreciation measures was explained by parents' self-reported speech tendencies. As such, we examined relationships between the children's accuracy on the irony appreciation measures and parents' self-ratings on the Parental Survey dimensions. There were, indeed, some significant relationships. For instance, parents' scores on the Risky dimension were significantly correlated with children's speaker belief accuracy for ironic criticisms, suggesting parents with higher sarcasm use tend to have children who are more accurate in their interpretation of speaker belief. In this experiment, parents' self-ratings were not correlated with children's interpretations of speaker attitude.

In the second experiment, the children were 9- and 10-year-olds and one of our goals was to test the validity of the parents' responses to the General and Risky dimensions of the Parental Survey. To accomplish this, parents in the second experiment were also given two production items to complete. For each item a situation was described, and parents were asked to select (from a list which included both literal and ironic remarks) the statement they would most likely make in that situation. The first production item asked parents to imagine a situation with their best friend, and responses on this item were found to be related to responses on the General dimension of the Parental Survey. The second production item asked parents to imagine a situation involving a new acquaintance, and responses on this item were found to be related to responses on the Risky dimension of the Parental Survey. These relationships suggested that there was some validity to the Parental Survey dimensions.

In this second experiment, children tended to show equivalent speaker belief accuracy for literal criticisms and for ironic criticisms. In this way, their appreciation for speaker belief seemed to be more sophisticated than that demonstrated by the children in the first experiment. When we again evaluated relationships between children's responses on irony appreciation measures and the parents' self-ratings on the Parental Survey dimensions it was perhaps not surprising, then, that there were no significant correlations with children's speaker belief accuracy difference values. The children's speaker (p.302) attitude assessments, however, were related to parents' scores on the General Parental Survey dimension, the Risky Parental Survey dimension, and the “new acquaintance” production item. The nature of these relationships was that children who tended to perceive ironic criticisms as less mean than literal criticisms tended to have parents who chose the ironic statement on the production item and also tended to have parents who rated themselves as likely to use sarcasm in general and in risky contexts.

Taken together, these two experiments establish that children whose parents reported an inclination to use sarcasm had stronger appreciation for ironic remarks. One striking aspect of this relationship is the fact that the children's irony comprehension was assessed without their parents' involvement, and for novel ironic remarks, the precise wording of which the children could not possibly have encountered at home. It is possible, of course, that children whose parents reported an inclination to use sarcasm had stronger appreciation for ironic remarks because those children were more familiar with the general form of ironic interaction. It is also possible, however, that the critical mechanism for this relationship may not be that parents' speech gives children specific examples of nonliteral language. Instead, parents' speech may challenge children's comprehension abilities in ways that facilitate EF development. Consistent with our proposal, it is entirely possible that, while EF development no doubt assists in children's understanding of the ambiguous nature of sarcastic irony, parental use of sarcasm in turn may facilitate EF development in children.

We end our chapter with a final example of how children's need to struggle with the ambiguities of socially provided information may be useful in helping to advance their executive abilities—the case of children learning more than one language.

Bilingualism and Executive Function Development

Language use is a social construction. Historically, there have existed two contrasting views about the cognitive implications of children acquiring more than one language. One view would have it that children should first be allowed to gain a significant foothold in their first language before being made to acquire a second. Those who subscribe to this view would argue that very young children who are struggling to learn language at all will be terribly confused if they are expected to understand that a single thing can be termed more than one label, depending on the language spoken. Conversely, there are those that suggest that, rather than be a hindrance, exposure to dual labeling might actually facilitate not only the development of bilingualism, but may (p.303) have broader reaching advantages for cognitive development in general. It is this second camp where we hang our hats.

Indeed, researchers in recent years have consistently found a positive relationship between bilingualism and cognitive abilities (e.g., Bialystok, 1999; Diaz, Padilla, & Weathersby, 1991). More specifically for the purposes of this volume, Bialystok and her colleagues have found a strong bilingual advantage (e.g., Bialystok & Martin, 2004), with bilingual children outperforming their monolingual counterparts on tasks measuring EF capabilities.

In keeping with the claims made earlier in this chapter, and in line with Bialystok's view, we propose that it is precisely the need to manage two competing languages that could account for the increased executive ability found in bilingual populations (Bialystok, Craik, Klein, & Viswanathan, 2004). Bialystok's (2001) suggestion is that development of inhibitory control is facilitated in bilingual children because, in a bilingual individual, both languages remain active during processing and intrusions from one language while another is in use must be minimized by inhibiting the nonrelevant language. Early on, when children are first acquiring the two languages, intrusions of the nonrelevant language are common. As children become more versatile in both languages they are able to exercise increased inhibition of the nonrelevant language. The possible superior development of EF in bilingual children can also be viewed in a slightly different way. Specifically, children learning two languages must be able to grasp that a single object can be represented in more than one way. If a child has an initial label for an object, then according to the mutual exclusivity hypothesis put forward by Markman and others (for review see Markman, 1991), it will be very difficult for the child to accept a novel word for the same object. Children who are in the process of acquiring two languages must overcome this difficulty on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Hearing the novel (alternative language) label applied to an object for which the child already has a known label may induce some cognitive conflict as the child struggles to grasp the dual label. Once again, this cognitive conflict, and the resulting disequilibration, would push the child toward further executive control. In understanding the nature of two languages children must be able to code switch, that is, switch from using one language to using the other, taking into account their listener's language. Consequently, the dimension of EF that we could expect most likely to be enhanced by bilingual language acquisition is cognitive flexibility (Diaz et al., 1991).

A prominent researcher in this area, Ellen Bialystok and her colleagues (1999; Bialystok & Martin, 2004) have examined the relation of bilingualism and preschool children's scores on a well-known measure of cognitive (p.304) flexibility, the Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS) task developed by Zelazo and his colleagues (Zelazo, Frye, & Rapus, 1996). In this task, children are presented with cards that vary along two dimensions, such as color and shape. Children are asked, first, to sort the cards on the basis of one of these dimensions, for example by their shape. After a number of trials under the shape sorting rule, children are told that the rules of the game have changed and that they now must play the color game and sort on the basis of color. The challenge, of course, is that children must be able to switch from their previously learned response to a new one that is in opposition to the first. In Bialystok's research, bilingual children routinely outperform monolingual children, demonstrating greater ease in the postswitch phase than their monolingual counterparts. Bialystok (1999) posits that bilingual language users gain a superior level of control over their attention that allows them to selectively attend to specific aspects of a situation without being misled by incorrect information. As a result, they are able to focus on the relevant aspects of the situation (i.e., the language of the person to whom they are speaking) and ignore inappropriate portions (i.e., their own alternative language). This language control, or code switching ability, would seem to be indicative of underlying cognitive flexibility.


In this chapter, we have attempted to illustrate the complexity of the relation between social understanding and EF development. In doing so we limited ourselves to a few examples of programs of research that allow for exploration of this relation. Certainly, this list is far from exhaustive. What we hope we have accomplished is to demonstrate that there is an advantage in thinking of EF and social understanding developing, as it were, in tandem, offering support for each other. In addition, we have tried to highlight how Piaget's notion of equilibration may provide a useful framework for studying how social interaction might work to facilitate cognitive growth. Specifically, we proposed that the ambiguity inherent in many social interactions may push the developing child into disequilibration, resulting in the child striving to regain equilibration, which in turn results in a shift in the child's thinking, or in Piaget's term, accommodation.

We end as we began, with a quote from Bringuier's Conversations with Piaget (1980):

Bringuier: Why “equilibration” and not simply “equilibrium”?

Piaget: Because it's a process, not a balance of forces. (p. 44)


This chapter was supported by a Canada Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Grant awarded to S. Hala and by a Canada Social Sciences and Humanities Research Grant awarded to P. Pexman.


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