Interview by Sherida Mock
A world-class developmental research facility operates right in our own backyard, but how many of us know about it? Maybe you’ve heard of the Children’s Research Lab at UT Austin (CRL). If you haven’t, you and your kids are missing out on a chance to participate in ground-breaking discoveries.
Dr. Becky Bigler, professor of Psychology and Women’s and Gender Studies, runs the CRL. She took the time to show us around and tell us what you can expect if you choose to participate in one of their many fascinating studies.
AF: What sort of research do you do here?
We have faculty who do very diverse things, such as Judy Langlois, who is one of the world’s experts on attractiveness biases in children. Her work was just astounding when it first came out.
People thought you learned to be biased, that you learned the standards for beauty in your culture. And that turns out not to be true. While people might find different kinds of jewelry or clothing attractive, faces are universally seen as more or less attractive. Even by 6 months of age, babies know what’s attractive, and they strongly prefer to look at attractive faces.
We also have people who study language development, imagination and learning. We’ve had people study parenting and discipline practices, for example, whether spanking is a good or bad idea.
I study gender and racial attitudes and social stereotyping and prejudice in children. We were on the cover of Newsweek in 2009 for work showing that most white mothers adopt a color-blind philosophy with their children, in the hope of conveying to their children that they’re not prejudiced.
However, it turns out that their children actually end up fairly racially biased. And they think their mothers are, too. The kids assumed their mothers shared the kids’ own biases, which we think come from the wider culture. Children get exposed to billboards and media and peers, this wider culture that contains racial biases. And without a parent talking to them about those messages and about the parent’s own beliefs, children seem to adopt the wider cultural messages.
In 2012, we hired David Yeager, who studies adolescents and the beliefs they have about the social world, their peer relations, aggressiveness, academic achievement and goals.
AF: How does this lab compare to others around the country?
Our facilities are some of the finest in the U.S. We are so blessed to have this space, with plenty of facilities and child-sized furniture and one-way mirrors and lab space that allow us to do tasks like play with robots and read books and record EEG readings. We need specialized space, and we have been so lucky that we have both a university administration and department that support the work we do.
AF: How do you identify the children you invite for your research?
We have a database of parents who have come in, and we go to community events, for example, Longhorn Halloween on campus. We set up a table, hand out flyers and talk to parents who come by.
We’ve always found that parents are happy to come and are interested in the work. They usually get to watch what their kid is doing, and it’s as fascinating to them as it is to us. But getting our message out there—letting people know we’re here—can be difficult.
Our ability to do our jobs totally depends on people helping us by participating. It’s important that developmental psychology represents the world of all children. It’s important that we reach out to parents across ethnicity and religious backgrounds, as well as class, income and education levels. We really don’t want there to be obstacles for you to come here, and if there are, we want to help you overcome the obstacles.
AF: Can a parent volunteer without an invitation?
Sure! We never mind being contacted. The first question we’ll ask is, “How old is your child?” And we’ll see if there’s any study going on in that age range.
AF: What can a child and parent expect, if they agree to participate in a study?
You would get an email, something like, “We have a study for 5 year olds concerning their understanding of imagination. Can we contact you about setting up a time to participate?”
If you reply, we set up a time that works for you. We test pretty much any time. We really want to be available, because we know that you’re the one who is being so gracious as to come in. We’ll provide you a parking pass and you can come right in.
You will meet the person who’s going to do the interviews with your child. You’ll be given an informed consent paper. A major part of the procedure is for the parent to understand what will happen and the purpose of the study, so they can consent.
The tester will greet your child and chat with them a little bit. We want to make the child as comfortable as possible.
Then you’ll be taken to whatever space—the studies happen in different kinds of spaces. We have some with one-way mirrors, like in my case, where mothers read to their children in the way that they would read at home, and we’re filming through a one-way mirror.
We hope that every parent has a chance to get any questions answered. Often, the researcher doesn’t know the findings of the study yet. We know parents want to know, “Is my kid normal?” I totally understand the impulse. Sadly, we’re just sometimes not in a position to know what the normative response is.
Then depending on the study, there may be a small gift for coming in. Labs vary in how much funding they have, for example, from federal funding or private funding or in some cases no funding at all. But some can give a little prize, from UT pencils to water bottles.
At the very least, we hope that you are profoundly thanked. That’s one of the biggest messages I would like to get across, is how grateful we are for the parents and kids who come and spend their time answering our questions.
You should at some point get a follow-up that describes the study findings. Research is a much slower process than people think. The average time from starting a study to having the study come out in a journal is about seven years. It means your 7 year old is now practically off to high school by the time the study you participated in came out in the public domain.
It is a shockingly slow process, and you have to have a lot of patience for the reward at the end. A lot of our reward, frankly, is just the experience of running the subjects and meeting parents.
About the Children’s Research Lab at UT Austin
The CRL opened in January 1982.
About 600 children participate in studies each year.
Fifteen to 20 studies are going on at any given time.
About 10 to 12 studies are actively recruiting participants at any given time.
If you would like to participate in a CRL study, contact Nadia Sanchez at firstname.lastname@example.org or fill out the online form at bit.ly/1DFHsFr.