Children and youth identify more strongly with their peers than others, finds U of T study

Children having dinner (iStock photos)

Trying to get your kids to behave at the dinner table?  Chances are your kids will respond better if you get one of their peers to model the behaviour for them, according to a new study from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education.

The study, published in the Cognitive Development journal in September, looks into how children and youth engage in self-other matching – the ability to match or identify another person’s body onto our understanding of our own body.

Professor Timothy Welsh of KPE, who co-authored the study with Professor Luc Tremblay, Sandra M. Pacione, Shikha Patel and Aarohi Pathak from KPE’s Centre for Motor Control, says self-other matching is thought to be one important step for many social interactions. 

“For example, when we attempt to imitate someone else’s action, such as how they are standing or walking, we need to first identify the other person’s body parts, the arms, legs, head, etc. Then, we need to conceptually map those body parts to our own body parts and match the positions and motions of the other person’s body parts to those of our own body,” he says.

The researchers found that the self-other body matching process was strongest when the children and youth saw bodies of their peers.  

“There was evidence of self-other matching when boys aged 10 to 12 saw an image of an 11 year old boy, but the self-other matching was not as strong when these boys saw an image of a 7 year old boy or a 15 year old boy. Likewise, boys aged 13 to 16 seemed to engage in self-other matching when they looked at an image of a 15 year old boy, but the self-other matching was not as strong when they saw images of a 7 or a 11 year old boy,” says Welsh.
The peer-specific nature of the self-other matching effect surprised the researchers, who had assumed that because people interact with people of other ages all the time, all individuals would show self-other matching with all images, regardless of age. 

“It’s not that children and youth are incapable of self-other matching with non-peers, but it does seem that this self-other matching process is most effective with peers,” says Welsh.

The researchers hope the study will help them understand how we interact with other people. 

“Because this self-other matching process is thought to be one core step in social interactions like empathy and observational learning, more effective self-other matching with peers might help us understand more about how we interact with and learn from people we consider to be peers and non-peers,” says Welsh.

Teachers, coaches and parents may want to take special note of the results of the study. 

“If you are trying to teach someone a new behaviour or movement by having the person model and imitate those movements of another person, it could be that this modeling and learning might be more effective if a peer is the model,” says Welsh.

“This is not to suggest that people cannot learn by watching anyone, whether they are a peer or not, only that the learning might be more effective when we can easily match the body we observe onto our own body.” 

Read the study here.