Children whose mothers talk to them about other people's feelings and desires from an early age are more likely to develop excellent inter-personal relationships and social skills than their peers, whose mothers do not include “mental state talk” in their education. Social understanding is essential to developing social skills, experts from the University of Sussex Department of Psychology have inferred. The research has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the largest organization for funding researches on economic and social issues in the United Kingdom.
For the study, the experts followed 3-year-old children until they turned 12. The goal of the research was to communicate with the young ones and their mothers, and to assess exactly how the mother's influence reflected the way the children came to perceive the needs of those around them. The study involved a large variety of research methods, ranging from interviews, questionnaires, and assessments of social understanding to observations of mental states. 82 families were enlisted at the beginning of the study, but only 57 completed the survey.
The children had their levels of social understanding assessed periodically between the ages of 8 and 12, in what the investigators termed “middle childhood.” For most of the experiments, the team used video clips extracted from the TV comedy show “The Office.”
“Ricky Gervais's character, David Brent, is a typical example of someone who is very insensitive and reads social situations incorrectly. We cringe to watch it because we are embarrassed by his complete lack of social understanding,” the leader of the latest stages of the research, Dr. Nicola Yuill, from the university's Department of Psychology, explained. The expert led the investigation with colleague Dr. Ted Ruffman. “From our study, I certainly wouldn't say that having a good social understanding guarantees good behaviour. Having a good social understanding is only part of the picture – it has to be used in socially beneficial ways,” Yuill added.
“Using mental state talk is not hard. It does not require particularly good language skills or a sophisticated social understanding and it seems eminently teachable. It would be really interesting to work with people who run family learning programs to explore whether teaching parents how to use mental state talk has a beneficial effect on their children's social understanding,” the expert concluded.