Research Projects of Developmental Psychology

Principal investigator: Prof. Birgit Elsner

Development of action control and action understanding in thefirst 18 months of life; imitation; observational learning; acquisition of functional knowledge.

Various studies on this subject deal with the question of how infants, in the first two years of life, perceive other people's actions and how their perceptions influence their own actions. Actions are composed of several observeable components: a movement is executed, and effects in the environment are generated, sometimes by using objects as instruments. To be able to imitate an action, the child has to single out the observable action components and to relate them to each other. Then, he or she has to internalize the observation and, after a short delay, to recall the components. The main assumption of this research is as follows: The components the child imitates depend on the child's stage of cognitive development, especially on the abilities in perception, attention and memory. Age-differences in imitation-task performance can thus be interpreted as indicators of the infant's cognitive development.

Investigation of infants' psycho-physiological correlates of attention: Event-related potentials (ERP), electroencephalogram (EEG), heart-rate measures.

Usually, attention processes of infant are recorded with behavioral measures, such as duration of fixation or duration of object examiniation. Although these measures allow for objective and reliable assessment, they are nevertheless only indirect indicators for attention. Psycho-physiological measures could offer a more direct means to measure attention processes. For instance, focused attention is usually accompanied by a decrease in heart-rate. In habituation-/dishabituation experiments, one should therefore expect that a decrease in fixation duration over the trials, or habituation, is accompanied by an increase in heart-rate. Renewed interest, or dishabituation to a novel stimulus should lead to heart-rate decrease. We were able to demonstrate this in a categorization task with 12-month-old children: Elsner, B., Pauen, S., & Jeschonek, S. (2006). Physiological and behavioral parameters of infants' categorization: Heart rate and duration of examining across trials. Developmental Science, 9, 551-556.

The EEG assesses electrophysiological processes and can therefore be used for the measurement of the attention processes in the infant's brain. The advantage of this method is its high temporal resolution which makes measurements possible even for very briefly presented stimuli. The distribution of the electrophysiological activities of the scalp allows for statements about the supposed localization of the cognitive processes. Comparisons between infants of different ages permit conclusions on the development of attention processes and of the related brain areas.

Electrophysiological correlates of the understanding of agency and goal-directed action throughout development

Research Assistant: Ivanina Henrichs

Parts of the adult human brain are specialized for viewing and understanding agentive action (see Blakemore & Decety, 2001). Detecting an agent is a fundamental precursor for perceiving complex aspects of movement, such as detecting goal-directed behaviour in human action. Perceiving these complex aspects of human behaviour is necessary for abilities that are essential for human cultural skills, such as imitation and language learning (Elsner, 2007; Striano & Reid, 2006). Thus, the detection and discrimination of agents is of primary importance to foundational components of social cognition.

Little is known regarding the development of neural systems employed in the perception of agents. The neural basis of agent detection as seen in the adult brain raises the question of whether these neural systems are pre-wired or, alternatively, whether they are learned during early development. Such information could lead to further advances in understanding atypical development, such as autism. In this project, we will merge leading research teams in this field from the United Kingdom and Germany in order to identify the neural underpinnings of the detection of agency and goal-directed actions in early development and to relate this to processing of the same information in adulthood.

Principal investigator: Dr Viola Meckelmann

Pubertal timing and psychosocial development in adolescence/emerging adulthood.

Antecedents of pubertal timing and it's consequences for psychosocial adjustment in adolescence are in focus of recent research. How does pubertal timing influence the coping with developmental tasks in adolescence? Are there relations between childhood experiences, pubertal timing and psychosocial adjustment in adolescence? Based on the fact, that research on these issues for the period of emerging adulthood has been scarce, the empirical studies should be extended to cover this age range.

Principal investigator: Dr Bernd Schellhas

Learning strategies - Development and implementation in pre-school- and school-age

Learning effectiveness depends on the interaction between the learning-environment and learner specific cognitive and motivational characteristics. Learning processes are based on cognitive concepts, strategies, and techniques. High learning achievements require individual adaptations between learning needs (e.g. in problem solving, memory, reading, writing) and learning strategies.

Present research focussed on the following questions:

What is the function of personal factors like prior knowledge, intelligence, motivation, and general knowledge about learning strategies in learning processes?
How does the developmental level affect learning strategies in specific academic domains?
Do typical learning strategic procedures in different developmental ages exist?
Can we find strategy procedures in early childhood?

Computer-based psycholinguistic geriatric therapy - Development of a computer-based speech test for the diagnosis of lexical processing in geriatric domain

Slow speech processing and word finding difficulties are typical aphasic disorders. These deficits typically result in communication disorders to a lesser or greater degree. Central components in the diagnosis of aphasia are assessments based on the naming of pictures of objects and/or actions.
We are developing a standardized test for the diagnosis of word finding processes in aphasia and dementia especially for elderly persons. Distinguishing parameters for standardization are familiarity, degree of correspondence between name and picture, word frequency, and time of latency. Test results will be combined with cognitive clinical data to refine the individual speech-therapy material. This interdisciplinary project is conducted in collaboration with Dr. R. Becker, Department of clinical-linguistic speech therapy of EGZB (Charité of Humboldt University Berlin) and B. Meier, (Berlin).

Principal investigator: Caroline Pfeifer

Der Weg ist das Ziel - Oder doch nicht?
Untersuchung des Imitationsverhaltens von Kindergartenkindern

Untersuchungen haben gezeigt, dass Kinder schon ab 12 Monaten eher das Ziel oder die Bedeutung einer Handlung imitieren als die jeweilige Bewegung (Carpenter et al., 2005, Dev. Sci. 8). Dreijährige Kinder wiesen in Studien gleichermaßen Zielpräferenzen auf (Gleissner et al., 2000, Dev. Sci. 3). Im Gegensatz dazu berichteten Wagner, Yocom und Greene-Havas (2008, J. Exp. Child Psychol. 100), dass die meisten Kinder in ihrer Studie die Bewegung auf Kosten des Ziels imitierten. In einer Teilreplikation und Erweiterung der Studie von Wagner et al. untersuchten wir das Verhalten drei- bis sechsjähriger Kindergartenkinder (N = 34, Alter: M = 54 Monate) in einer Imitations-Wahl-Aufgabe in Abhängigkeit unterschiedlich salienter Ziele (Boot/Bank bzw. grüne Schüssel/rote Schüssel). Zusätzlich wurde der Einfluss verbaler Hinweisreize des Versuchsleiters auf das Imitationsverhalten der Kinder betrachtet. Unser Anliegen war es, zu untersuchen, ob sich das Imitationsverhalten der Kinder abhängig von der Zielsalienz und den verbalen Hinweisreizen unterscheidet. Der Versuchsleiter führte eine zielgerichtete Handlung mit einem Stofftier auf einer Rampe vor. In der Imitations-Wahl-Aufgabe waren die Ziele auf der Rampe der Kinder vertauscht, deshalb mussten sich die Kinder entweder für die Reproduktion der Bewegung oder des Ziels der beobachteten Handlung entscheiden. Vorläufige Ergebnisse wiesen auf eine deutliche Zielpräferenz der Kinder hin und dies unabhängig von der Salienz der Ziele. Weiterhin ergab sich eine signifikante Interaktion zwischen der Wahl des Ziels und den verbalen Hinweisreizen, in dem Sinne, dass bei Betonung des Ziels dieses auch häufiger imitiert wurde. Tendenziell ließ sich eher bei den älteren als bei den jüngeren Kindern eine Bevorzugung des Ziels feststellen. Die Ergebnisse unserer Untersuchung zeigen, dass Kindergartenkinder eher das Ziel einer Handlung imitieren als die zielführende Bewegung und dass sie die verbalen Hinweisreize des Modells zur Interpretation von Handlungen nutzen.

Rationale Imitation bei 3-5-Jährigen (2009)

Die Imitation (Nachahmung) dient als Maß für die Entwicklung wichtiger Lern- und Denkprozesse. Durch die Imitation von Verhaltensweisen anderer Personen können Kinder komplexe Verhaltensweisen innerhalb kürzester Zeit lernen. Wir sind daran interessiert, wie Kinder zwischen 3 und 5 Jahren Handlungen anderer Personen wahrnehmen und sie verstehen. Im Rahmen des Projektes "Imitationsverhalten als Maß für soziale Kognitionen bei 3- 5-jährigen Kindern" wird untersucht, wie sich das Imitationsverhalten von Kindergartenkindern in Abhängigkeit unterschiedlicher Kontextbedingungen verändert. Im Rahmen dieser Studie werden Kindern verschiedene Bewegungen, unter anderem auch mit Spielzeugen, vorgemacht, welche dann von den Kindern je nach Bedingung unterschiedlich präzise imitiert werden.

Former research projects

Forschungsprojekte unter der Leitung von Prof. Dr. Hellgard Rauh (German only)


Postal address

Department Psychologie
Universität Potsdam
Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 24-25
OT Golm
14476 Potsdam

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Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 24-25
Potsdam - Golm
University Campus Golm
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Map of Golm campus

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University of Potsdam, Germany