Experimental Studies

Another method of research sometimes used to assess a variety of aspects of children's functioning is experimental studies (usually laboratory) in which some aspect of the situation is experimentally manipulated. For example, in studies of young children's regulation, investigators sometimes have manipulated the degree to which the mother is in the room or available to the child when the child is experiencing a potentially stressful situation (Diener & Mangelsdorf, 1999; Grolnick, Kurowski, McMenamy, Rivkin, & Bridges, 1998). In marital conflict research, studies have examined children's responses to conflict in a laboratory setting by having children view a video that portrays marital conflict or by having actors in a lab engage in varying forms of conflict in the child's presence (Cummings, Iannotti, & Zahn-Waxler, 1985; Davies, Harold, Goeke-Morey, & Cummings, 2002). The obvious advantage of such methods is the degree of control over the potential influences on the child. A disadvantage is that the situation often is artificial; moreover, it is difficult to experimentally manipulate many variables that developmentalists want to assess. For example, it is difficult to experimentally assess the effects of individual differences in parenting on children's outcomes with laboratory experimental studies. The investigator likely is interested in a parent's behavior in general and not as modified by the laboratory, and children cannot be "assigned" to parents and families. Nevertheless, interventions in which real parents' behaviors are modified in an experimental group and compared to a control group can provide some insights on the effects of parenting on children. Experimental methods of this sort are used relatively infrequently in longitudinal designs (except, perhaps, as part of an experimental intervention). However, they can be quite useful in studies assessing children's cognitive abilities (e.g., knowledge when provided with different types of information) and perceptual abilities.

Indeed, for researchers interested in cognitive development, experimental designs are often the norm. In many studies of cognitive, language, and motor development, infants or children participate in tasks designed to examine children's abilities and knowledge using habituation/dishabituation paradigms in infancy (Baillargeon, 1994) and actual cognitive/motor tasks (Campos, Bertenthal, & Ker-moian, 1992; Newcombe & Huttenlocher, 1992; Werker, 1989). For example, in work on theory of mind, researchers have used tasks such as the false belief task. In this task, children see a scene where a character, Maxi, puts chocolate in a drawer, and while Maxi is out of the room another person moves the chocolate. Children are asked where Maxi will look for the chocolate to determine at what age children can understand the difference between what they believe to be true and what others believe (Wimmer & Perner, 1983). These types of studies rarely use a multimethod approach, instead relying primarily on the experimental tasks to assess a specified cognitive ability.

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