Public Release: 

Females explain influence of past on future differently than males

Findings may help explain higher anxiety rates in women

Society for Research in Child Development

A new study finds that young girls and women are more likely to believe that negative past events predict future events, compared to boys and men. And that, according to researchers, may help explain why females have more frequent and intense worries, perceive more risk, have greater intolerance for uncertainty, and experience higher rates of anxiety than males. The findings, from studies conducted at the University of California, Davis, are published in the September/October 2007 issue of the journal Child Development.

In two studies involving 128 people, a researcher investigated 3- to 6-year-olds' as well as adults' knowledge that worry and preventative behaviors can be caused by thinking that a negative event from the past will or might reoccur in the future. The ability to explain emotions and behaviors in relation to past events is considered a fundamental part of adult social understanding that is important for processing past trauma, assessing risk, and making decisions.

In the first study, participants listened to six stories featuring characters that experienced negative events and then, many days later, felt worried or changed their behaviors when they saw the person or animal that had caused them prior harm. Children and adults were asked to explain the cause of the character's worry or behavior and then to predict how a naïve friend would react to the same situation. The second study was the same as the first, except that the person or animal in the final scene only looked similar to the one that had caused harm in the past. In addition, for some trials, participants were asked to predict how the character was likely to respond to seeing this new person or animal.

Although there were no gender differences in the frequency with which participants provided past-to-future explanations, in both studies, female children and adults more frequently explained characters' reactions as motivated by possible versus certain harm (that is, what might happen versus what will happen). Moreover, female children and adults more frequently predicted that characters who encountered "similar perpetrators" would feel worried because they thought the new person or animal might cause the same harm as the one from the past.

The studies also found that children and adults believe negative past events forecast negative future events, even when the person or animal only resembles the past perpetrator of harm. Between 3 and 6 years of age, children increasingly understand that people's worry and behavior can be caused by allowing memories about past negative events to influence their anticipation of the future, and they are more aware that others who didn't experience or know about the negative past would feel differently and make different decisions.

"These results are significant because they reveal that knowledge about the impact of past-to-future thinking on emotions and behaviors develops during the preschool years," according to Kristin Hansen Lagattuta, assistant professor of psychology, a researcher at the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, and the author of the study.

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Summarized from Child Development, Vol. 78, Issue 5, Thinking About the Future Because of the Past: Young Children's Knowledge About the Causes of Worry and Preventative Decisions by Lagattuta, KH (University of California, Davis). Copyright 2007 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All rights reserved.

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