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  1. 1. Cogniţie, Creier, Comportament / Cognition, Brain, BehaviorCopyright © 2006 Romanian Association for Cognitive Science. All rights reserved.ISSN: 1224-8398Volume X, No. 3 (September), 343-366 COGNITIVE FLEXIBILITY AND SOCIAL COMPETENCE FROM CHILDHOOD TO EARLY ADOLESCENCE Silvia CIAIRANO * , Silvia BONINO, Renato MICELI Department of Psychology, University of Torino, Italy ABSTRACT Cognitive flexibility can be conceived as the capacity of children to inhibit automatism and to decentralise themselves from the present situation. The hypothesis of the present study is that children with higher cognitive flexibility are more cooperative within social interactions with peers: the goal is achieved together with the other individual and not against him/her. Children of 7, 9 and 11 years (94 boys and 80 girls) were considered. Cognitive flexibility was measured by means of the Stroop Effect as a correlate of the evaluated ability to avoid an automatic response: children were classified as presenting high, medium or low flexibility. For evaluating social interaction, two children (both of the same level of flexibility) were asked to play with a puzzle during a time of 10’. Each action and verbalisation was classified as representing a: neutral, cooperative and non-cooperative behaviour. Language was also classified as task-centered or not-task centered, and all the interactions (behavioural or linguistic) were classified as successful or not. The results (ANOVA, p <.0001) confirmed the hypothesis: children with high flexibility carry out many more cooperative behaviours, less neutral ones and very few non-cooperative ones. The difference is more evident for cooperative language abilities. Summarising, flexibility in thinking corresponds to greater social competence in the interaction with peers. No other factors (neither age nor gender) seem to play an important role. KEYWORDS: thinking, flexibility, cooperation, competition From the very beginning of life reality is constructed and processed by themind. Between mind and reality there is not simply a pre-established coordination;neither does the former simply become present to the latter. Already according toPiaget, mind and reality coordinate each other: step by step the child builds anunderstanding of his/her actions as well as of the external world through an* Corresponding author:E-mail: ciairano@psych.unito.it
  2. 2. 344 S. Ciairano, S. Bonino, R. Miceli/ Cognition, Brain, Behavior 10 (2006) 343-366interchanging process. The most important characteristic of the interrelationshipsbetween the individual and his/her environment is their peculiar bidirectionality.Moreover, the active construction of reality by the individual does not take place ina world of objects, but within the perimeters of social interaction: human socialitycomes before any physiological needs such as those of protection and food(Bowlby, 1969). For these reasons, there is a continuous relationship betweencognitive development and social interaction. Nowadays it is generally acknowledged that the construction of reality isin no way simply a linear process where only achievement of new acquisitions canbe registered: there may be times when the developmental process will stop andothers when a regression to former levels may be registered. The non linearity ofdevelopment has been recognised by several authors (Mounoud, 1992b; Mounoud,1993b; Mounoud, 1994; Mounoud, 1995; Rutter & Rutter, 1992) and in diversefields of research: developmental psychology (Ford & Lerner, 1992; Van Geert,1994, 2001; Bonino, 2002) as well as neuropsychology (Bell & Fox, 1992; Houdé,1995a). At the same time, the non linearity of development requires more thananything else a capacity to block old acquisitions in order to elaborate new ones.Indeed, during the last years there was renewed interest in studying the inhibitionof automatism during development and also in the role played by flexibility inthinking. Development does not come about only through new acquisitions, it alsorequires the inhibition of formerly acquired modes of response which becomeautomatic with habit, or rather, the coordination and integration of those habits in acompletely different structure (Mounoud, 1992a; Mounoud, 1993a; Bosma &Kunnen, 2001). It was stressed how this process occurs several times duringcognitive development: in the case of object permanence, perservation, acquisitionof the concept of number and in the case of categorisation (Houdé, 1995a). Back in 1970 Mounoud 1 noted how several times in the history ofpsychology there had been attempts to approach the characteristic of thinkingknown as flexibility. The human capacity to inhibit automatic responses in thesetting up of complex cognitive processes already interested Cattel as long ago as1886, while the role of flexibility as opposed to functional fixity in the resolutionof problems was investigated by the Gestalt psychology, which introduced theconcept of cognitive restructuration. Lewin also defined flexibility as the capacityto face changes in the cognitive structure of given a situation, assuming thepresence of noteworthy individual differences in this performance. In 1950 withinthe theoretical framework of the factorial model of intelligence, Guilforddistinguished between convergent and divergent thinking: the former movingtoward a fixed solution and the latter sorting different from already knowndirections and yielding new responses. More recently, flexibility was defined as thenecessary precursor of high level intellectual performance (Sternberg, 1985), and1 The authors would like to thank Prof. Pierre Monoud of the University of Geneve whomade many helpful suggestions; his contribution with this paper was really invaluable.
  3. 3. S. Ciairano, S. Bonino, R. Miceli/ Cognition, Brain, Behavior 10 (2006) 343-366 345then as the possibility of changing tactic when the information is of little use(Sternberg, 1988). Several studies individuated in the injuries to some areas of the frontal lobeand the prefrontal cortex (Diamond, 1988), the loss or damage of the cognitiveflexibility that permits us freedom in the choice and control of our own actions.Besides, the importance of connections among different areas of the brain wasshown (Baron-Cohen & Ring, 1994) and in the neurophysiological field severalhypotheses were advanced about the role that some cerebral areas play in theacquisition and development of this ability. However, finally the main role of thefrontal and prefrontal cortex was underlined (Diamond, 1988; Houdé, 1995a,Houdé, 1995b). In fact the frontal and prefrontal cortex let us put into practice behaviourwhich is different from that simply determined by automatisms. Diamond (1988)underlined that the capacity to avoid overbearing responses is developed late bothphilogenetically and ontogenetically: with regard to human individualdevelopment, the emergence of this capacity was identified about the end of thefirst year through the classic piagetian task of the hidden object (A not Bexperiment or error of the IV stage). Several other studies (Perret, 1974, Koenig,1986, Koenig, 1989) revealed a certain incapacity of inhibition in individualsaffected by pathologies of the frontal lobe. Specifically with regard to human behaviour, the presence of an "executiveof central control" was discovered, perhaps located in the frontal section of thebrains anatomy (Dubois, 1995), that should allow the successful use of socialskills in many fields of everyday life. The frontal cortex could be, then, theanatomic support for the executive functions (Houdé, 1995a; Houdé, 1995b;Sevino, 1995). On their turn, these executive functions are necessary to control andrealise the complex human behaviour that answers the double need of guaranteeinghomeostasis within the individual, and at the same time allowing for his/heradaptation to the external environment (Dubois, 1995). Seen from this perspective,cognitive flexibility - or the capacity to avoid automatism - is a characteristic ofhuman thinking made possible by the presence of particular neurophysiologicalprecursors. On the basis of these reflections, the authors hypothesise that the flexibilityis used, above all, to produce and regulate adequate behaviours in order to face acomplex social life and to achieve relatively peaceful cohabitation with our likes.As a matter of fact, the complexity of the social relations requires the use offlexible ways of thinking. To face social life with adequacy and efficacy theindividual should possess extremely flexible mental strategies, and must be able tobuild with others an adaptive relationship, which is never wholly predictable. Thecomplexity of social relations is just one of the concerns central to contemporarydevelopmental psychology, which recently underlined childrens competence indealing with it (Dunn, 1988; Fonzi, 1991; Fonzi, 1993). Moreover, some studies onthe theory of the mind noted the precocious competence of the child in cognitive
  4. 4. 346 S. Ciairano, S. Bonino, R. Miceli/ Cognition, Brain, Behavior 10 (2006) 343-366decentralisation and the capacity to represent mental states different from its own’(Battistelli, 1992, 1995; Camaioni, 1995; Flavell, 1988; Lewis & Mitchell, 1994).On the basis of these considerations we think that there is an important linkbetween the cognitive capacity for flexibility in thinking and social interaction,particularly cooperative social relations. We expect that the subjects more able toavoid automatism (from a cognitive point of view) are also more able to findcooperative solutions within the sphere of social relations. Indeed, to adequatelydeal with the complexity of social relationships, the individual requires both thecapacity to avoid automatic and primitive responses, such as aggression, and theability to modify ones own initial plans in order to taking into account thepresence of the others and their requirements (Bonino, 1982; Bonino & Tani, 1994;Smorti, 1993; Tani, 1993). Our hypothesis is supported by the results of previous studies thatunderlined a positive relation between competence in using symbols in play ofpretending and the elaboration of interactive cooperative strategies with peers from18 to 36 months (Bonino, 1991) and 3 to 5 years (Bonino, 1991; Fonzi & Tassi,1991). The child who is more able to overcome the constraint of reality is alsomore competent in solving problems of social relations by showing a decreased useof prejudicial aggression towards the other, which leads to a better cooperativeperformance with him/her (Fonzi & Tassi, 1991). The ability to use a ludic symbol(Bonino, 1985) implies an ability to inhibit the objective reality of things (a stick isa stick) and to give them instead a flexible, personal meaning (the stick is a horse). We already investigated the relationship between cognitive flexibility andthe ability to cooperate in another research and a positive relationship was found inchildren aged from 7 to 9 years (Bonino & Cattelino, 1997, 1999). In that studycognitive flexibility was proven by means of a categorisation test (the WisconsinCards Sorting Test) and ability to cooperate was measured by a task involving"linked pencils " (Fonzi & Tassi, 1991; Rey, 1934). The task concerned a clearlystructured situation where the child had to choose different social strategies,particularly between cooperative or competitive options. The present study, however, is based upon a different situation. Thecognitive flexibility of each subject has been measured by means of the StroopEffect (Stroop, 1935), designed to reveal the competence in avoiding automatismwithout the need of a categorisation task, which might be very complex for youngchildren. The Stroop task simultaneously presents the subjects with two conflictingpieces of information for the same stimulus: the name of a given colour is printedon a card in ink of a different colour. The interference of the information containedin the word on the naming of the actual colour is measured. The only requirementso that this interference can take place is that the child has already learned to read:it is possible, therefore, to administer this task already from the second grade of theelementary school, at around 7 years of age (Comalli, Wapner & Werner, 1962;Schiller, 1966; Bonino & Ciairano, 1997). Many previous studies (Koenig, 1986,1989; Mac Leod, 1991, 1992; Schiller, 1966) showed that the Stroop Effect
  5. 5. S. Ciairano, S. Bonino, R. Miceli/ Cognition, Brain, Behavior 10 (2006) 343-366 347measures the capacity of the subject to disengage himself/herself from a moreautomatic answer, that is, in this specific case, the information contained in theword. Houdé (1995a) quoted the Stroop Effect as an example of a task requiringexactly this inhibition of routines and the introduction of discontinuity in alreadyacquired knowledge, because it requires that the subject should have the capacityto select the information obtained from the stimulus, within a situation which tendsto lead to an inappropriate answer. The purpose of our research is to examine the relation between cognitiveflexibility and competence in employing cooperative strategies of action in threedifferent age groups from 7 to 11 years. The objective of the study is to verifywhether or not greater flexibility in thinking measured by the capacity to avoidautomatism would correspond to an increased capacity to cooperate in socialrelations with peers. To measure the capacity of each child to cooperate with a peerwe have created a situation as near as possible to ecological conditions: twochildren were asked to play together with only one game, namely a puzzle.Situations in which there is competition over the same object or resource naturallyarise in people’s everyday life. This may be due to a real scarcity of resources or itmay appear in a situation such as one in which a group of children has severalgames at their disposal, only one of which, however, elicits the whole groupsattention. In such a case there are at least three possible strategies that can beadopted: the subjects fight among themselves for exclusive possession of theobject; such a competition does not occur because someone in the group renouncespossession; the group decides to play all together. Our proposed situation does notrequire that the child should choose between cooperative and competitivestrategies: the conflict may dissolve due to mutual indifference. A cooperativeattitude may be revealed by the capacity to offer the playing partner the chance tobe involved in ones own sequence of actions and reciprocally, the partners abilitymay be measured as the capacity to allow the child become involved in the othersplay sequence. Our objective does not take only actions into account. On the basis of whatwas asserted by Vygotskij (1934) about the important role of the word inexpressing the balance of action, we expect that the difference between pairs ofchildren demonstrating high and low flexibility will also be a question of language.Indeed, the language used by the children during the game can also be categorisedas neutral, cooperative and not-cooperative. Besides the verbalisations strictlyinherent to the course of the task (suggesting, giving or denying any information tothe game partner) it is possible that during the interaction the children will engagein dialogues of a more general nature. The language produced during theinteraction, in fact, allows the subjects to go beyond the limits of the actualsituation and establish a dialogue with the partner about topics far removed fromthe task at hand (Bruner, 1957). In the last case we could talk of a language whichis "not task-centered" that demonstrates how the goal of finishing the game doesnot attract all the available attention of the subjects and does not circumscribe all
  6. 6. 348 S. Ciairano, S. Bonino, R. Miceli/ Cognition, Brain, Behavior 10 (2006) 343-366their linguistic interactions. However, it is equally possible that problems in themanagement of the pair game will become the only topic of debate: in this case wecould talk of a language exclusively "task-centered". Another aspect we take into account during the interaction regards thesuccess or the failure of the approach towards the partner by one child in the pair.In order to cooperate, the partners have to take turns in the general sequence of theinteraction where both make their contribution and accept that of the other (Doise& Mugny, 1981; Fonzi & Tassi, 1991). The attempts at social approach addressedby one child to his/her playing partner can turn out to be be successful or not bothon the level of action and that of language production. With regard to the issue of know-how, namely the practical ability of thechildren to finish the puzzle, we argue that it has no important relation withflexibility in thinking. The knowledge of how to do could be one of the possiblemediators of the pair interaction (Fonzi, Tassi & Tomada, 1991). But the subjectsmore gifted in flexibility of thinking should be able to face also a scarcecompetence of the partner, as they should equally be able to face also their ownincompetence without effectuating non-cooperative behaviour towards the partner.Finally, with regard to gender differences, we retain that flexibility in thinkingplays a role big enough to easily outweigh any differences linked to the gender ofthe members of each pair, which in any case we believe would turn out to benegligible. In summary, we advanced the following hypotheses: 1. the pairs of children with high cognitive flexibility produce a greater number of cooperative actions and also a smaller number of non- cooperative and neutral actions and verbalisations compared to pairs of children with low cognitive flexibility; besides, the children with medium flexibility produce an intermediate type of behaviour compared to the subjects located at the two opposite ends of the continuum; 2. the pairs of children with high cognitive flexibility produce more language not centred on the task than the pairs of children with low cognitive flexibility; and on the contrary the pairs of children with low flexibility produce more language specifically centred on the task at hand; 3. the children in pairs of high cognitive flexibility produce a greater number of successes in attempts at social approach towards the other (successful interactions), while the children belonging to couples at low flexibility should produce a greater number of failures (unsuccessful interactions). 4. gender is not related to the performance and the high or low flexibility is not related to the practical ability to finish the task. The present research is a cross-sectional study that takes into account anage range running from childhood to early adolescence (7, 9 and 11 years).Therefore it allows to reveal differences in cognitive flexibility and socialstrategies at different ages, though the authors are aware that longitudinal studiesare also needed.
  7. 7. S. Ciairano, S. Bonino, R. Miceli/ Cognition, Brain, Behavior 10 (2006) 343-366 349 Method Sample The sample consisted of 174 children of three different age groups: 7 yearsold, 34 males and 28 females; 9 years old, 36 males and 26 females; 11 years old,24 males and 26 females. These subjects attended the II and the IV grades of theelementary school, the I grade of the middle school respectively in a large city inNorthern Italy. The study consisted of two parts. Procedure I part The cognitive flexibility of each subject was measured by the StroopEffect 2 (Stroop, 1935) that measures the strenght of the habit of reading words onthe activity of naming colours. The subjects were asked to name the colour inwhich the words were printed, ignoring the information contained in the word: i.e.the word red was printed in blue and the subject had to say blue. According to theliterature (Dubois, 1995; Houdé, 1995a; Koenig, 1986, 1989) the interference ofthe Stroop Effect can be considered as the measure of the capacity of the subject toavoid automatism (e.g., the information contained in the word) and, thus of his/hercognitive flexibility: higher interference would mean lesser flexibility of thesubject and vice versa. The method we used in order to locate the temporal difference between theNC and the NCWd conditions and to extract the value of word interference on thenaming of colours is the same that was used by Stroop: the request to the subjectswas to finish the task as soon as possible and to correct any errors they made. Asregards the two conditions NC and NCWd, in the first condition the instructiongiven to the subjects was: "Tell me the colour of the patch", and in the second itwas: "Tell me the colour of the ink in which the word is printed". In order tocalculate the errors, we adopted the same procedure by Stroop: the double of theaverage time taken by the child to name the colour of one patch - in the case ofNC- or for naming the ink colour of one word - in the case of NCWd- was added tothe total time for each test. Taking into account the ability of contemporarychildren to deal with a greater number of colours than the children of 1935investigated by Stroop, in our experiment we used 9 colours: brown, red, green,blue, violet, orange, pale blue and black. With regard to the NCWd condition, werespected the Stroop procedure of elimination of the congruent colour: the ninecolour names were printed in ink of a different colour, in each of the other coloursexcept the colour identified by the word and in black, since it is a neutral colour2 This experiment consisted of two distinct conditions (Stroop, 1935): the NC "Namingcolor test": some colours (red, blue, green, brown) were stamped on a sheet as patches ofcolour: the subjects were asked to name them; the NCWd, " Naming color of word testwhere the color of the print and the word are different": the name of each of the five colorswas printed on a sheet the same number of times with ink of the other four colours. Fromthe difference between the two times for NC and NCWd was extracted the value of theinterference of the word information on the naming of the ink color.
  8. 8. 350 S. Ciairano, S. Bonino, R. Miceli/ Cognition, Brain, Behavior 10 (2006) 343-366and is used in normal writing. Finally, 64 cards were used for each task. The resultsare shown in Table 1: the interference drops from the value of 88 seconds at 7years, to 61 seconds at 9 years, and finally to 41 seconds at 11 years.Table 1 Means and standard deviation of Stroop interference by age groupAge Group N Mean (seconds) standard deviation7 years 62 88.30 43.839 years 62 60.64 24.7111 years 50 41.40 23.02Total sample 174 64.97 37.36 On the basis of our hypothesis we divided the subjects into groups at High,Medium and Low cognitive flexibility for each age group: 1) Low flexibility: asubject who showed an interference value above the mean with at least half of thestandard deviation: these are the least flexible children; 2) Medium flexibility: asubject who showed an interference value above/below the mean that lies betweenthe mean value and the value defined by the mean plus/minus half of the standarddeviation; 3) High flexibility in thinking: a subject who has showed an interferencevalue below the mean with at least half of the standard deviation: these are themost flexible children. We put children of the same flexibility category in pairs; once these pairswere formed, we moved onto the second part of the study, a social interactionsituation. Three different types of pairs were constituted based on the three levelsof flexibility in thinking: 1) LLFF pairs: comprised of LF subjects (minimum levelof cognitive flexibility); 2) MMFF pairs: constituted of MF subjects (mediumlevel); 3) HHFF pairs: comprised of HF subjects (maximum cognitive flexibility).The homogeneous pairs to whom we proposed the interaction game were 87 in all,subdivided into three different ages (Table 2).Table 2 Number of pairs according to type of flexibility and age 7 years 9 years 11years ROW TOTALLLFF 7 11 5 23MMFF 16 12 9 37HHFF 8 8 11 27Column total 31 31 25 87 Procedure II part During the second part, each pair of children was requested to play with apuzzle for a pre-established time period (ten minutes). For the three different ages(7, 9 and 11 years) puzzles with a different number of pieces were used, because
  9. 9. S. Ciairano, S. Bonino, R. Miceli/ Cognition, Brain, Behavior 10 (2006) 343-366 351the difficulty of the task should be related to the age of the children: 7 years: 49piece; 9 years: 60 pieces; 11 years: 70 pieces 3 . Each pair of children was invited by the researcher to go with him/her to aroom in the school near their classroom. Here, seated around a little table, theresearcher put in front of each pair of children two puzzles, which contained thesame number of pieces for each age, but were different in the image the childrenhad to construct and invited them to choose the one they wanted to play withtogether. It was from here that the observation of each couple began. The exactinstruction given by the researcher to the children was: "Here, there are twopuzzles. You have to choose which one you want to play with together." After thechildren had chosen the puzzle, the researcher gave them the next instruction:"Now, you have to try to finish the puzzle. You will have ten minutes". We did notgive any other information about how to finish the task. The game of the puzzle enabled us to observe children’s behaviour in anatural environment, the school, and within a very roughly structured situation. Forthe registration of the behavioural data we chose the paper and pencil technique.Then, we arranged an as-complete-as-possible check-list of the behaviour thatshould occur 4 . The different behaviours were grouped in three main categories.The behaviours directed towards reaching a common goal with the partner weredefined as cooperative and the behaviours directed explicitly against reaching acommon goal with the partner were defined as non-cooperative. Finally thebehaviour not involving any attempts to share something with the partner wasdefined as neutral: by this last term we refer to some categories of solitary playcarried out within a sequence of social interaction. As regards to the actions, the following categories are individuated: 1)Cooperative actions: showing a piece, showing a place, offering a piece, acceptinga piece, accepting a piece stopping a moment to take a glance at it, leaving a piecein the middle - that is between oneself and the playing partner - taking a piece fromthe others pile when the latter child does not oppose, assigning a piece, facilitatingthe work of the other by raising an arm, changing ones place to let the other comenear the game, trying to attach two large puzzle parts which have been built by3 A preliminary inquiry was made to verify the time required to solve puzzles with a certainnumber of pieces at a specific age, to make sure that the test is of equal difficulty for thethree different ages. Furthermore, this test had to respect two conditions: the puzzle shouldnot be too easy that it would be finished quickly and thus not give the children adequateopportunity to interact; but neither should it be too difficult because the time available foreach pair, aside from the preliminary phase, was only ten minutes. The sample used for thepreliminary phases of the inquiry (to individualize the number of puzzle pieces, andafterwards, the categories to insert in the observation check-list) was comprised of other 42children aged from 8 to 11 years (30 males and 12 females) who attended the III, the IVand the V grades respectively of another elementary school.4 The check-list was arranged on the basis of our preliminary inquiry with the sample of 42subjects
  10. 10. 352 S. Ciairano, S. Bonino, R. Miceli/ Cognition, Brain, Behavior 10 (2006) 343-366each of the two partners, attaching a piece to the part being built by the other,letting the other attach one of his/her pieces to the part one is oneself building,trying together to make some joints; 2) Non cooperative actions: wrenching a piecefrom the hands of the partner, stealing a piece from the pile in front of the otherchild or from the part of the picture that the other child has just built withouthis/her agreement, denying a piece to the other child, removing from the partnerthe puzzle part that he/she has just built, not offering the partner a piece even if thisbelongs to the part of the picture that the partner is building, not facilitating thework of the other even when it only means a slight shift of place, activelyobstructing the other child; 3) Neutral actions: turning the puzzle pieces over in anorderly way, turning the puzzle pieces over in a disorderly way, looking for a piecein the pile by turning everything upside down, dropping pieces, looking for a piece,not finding a piece, looking for and finding a piece, watching the other childplaying, working while the other child is watching without doing anything. Regarding language, the following categories of verbalisations task-centered are individuated: 1) Cooperative verbalisations with the purpose of:offering help, asking for help, providing information, providing instructions,asking for information, thanking, suggesting, providing the partner the reason for asuggestion, asking the partner to connect two parts, accepting the connection oftwo pieces; 2) Non cooperative verbalisations: refusing to help, refusing to accepthelp, cursing, sighing, contradicting the partner, boasting, shouting at the partner,not answering the partners question , inciting the partner to do something, orderingthe partner to do something, complaining to the partner because he/she works tooslowly or too little and that time is running out, complaining in general,complaining to the partner about his/her lack of ability, puffing; 3) Neutralverbalisations: asking the partner to wait, singing softly, talking to yourself,whispering to oneself, expressing some doubts, still related to the task. We also individuated some specific categories of language not task-centred, such as: jokes, talking about something not related to the task, talking tothe partner about something else then the game at hand. Finally, we defined the attempts of social approach by one of the partnerstoward the other, at the behavioural and linguistic level, as: 1) Successfulinteraction: the number of physical or verbal exchanges involving the approach ofone and the response of the other during the play time (in all the ten temporal unitsof one minute); 2) Unsuccessful interaction: the number of physical or verbalexchanges where the approach of one does not lead to the response of the other orleads to an explicit refusal by the other during the play time. During the ten minutes of the game with the puzzle, one observer notedwith a check-list all the physical behaviour produced by each partner of the pairwithin the ten temporal unit of one minute and registered the talks with a voice-recorder. The check-list contains the temporal information in the columns, whilethe rows identify the behavioural categories.
  11. 11. S. Ciairano, S. Bonino, R. Miceli/ Cognition, Brain, Behavior 10 (2006) 343-366 353 The actions neutral, cooperative and non cooperative were registeredimmediately during the observation. The verbalisations, neutral, cooperative andnon cooperative, task-centered or not task-centered were transcribed afterwards.Attempts at social approach made by one child towards the other were registeredon the basis of the same check-list filled in for each pair. Every time weencountered an action or a verbalisation such as "offering a piece", "asking for apiece" the response of the partner was checked. If the partner answered positively,the interaction was considered successful. On some occasions the other child didnot answer at all, pretending he/she heard nothing, or explicitly contradicted therequest of the partner: in both cases the attempt of one child was not followed byan adequate response from the other and the interaction was therefore consideredunsuccessful. The success or failure of the interactions was registered both at thelevel of action (i.e. one child tried to take a piece of the puzzle that the other childeither handed or did not hand over) and at the one of language (i.e. one child askedfor information and the other either gave or declared his/her intention of not givingor in the worst case did not answer). Finally, regarding their practical ability, reflected by each pairs capacity tofinish the task within the ten minutes of the game, the observer also registered thenumber of the pieces that remained to be put in place, while for pairs who managedto finish the task before the end of the ten minutes the final time was recorded. Sothe measure of know-how was the time in seconds in the case of pairs who finishedthe task and the number of pieces still to be inserted in the puzzle in the case ofpairs who did not finish. Results The puzzle game: analysis of actions Analysis of variance and mean comparisons were used to analyse the data.The relationships among types of action (neutral, cooperative and non-cooperative)and cognitive flexibility, age and gender were considered. The results confirmedour hypothesis: the flexibility was highly significant in regard to neutral actions[F(2, 69) = 6.06, p= .00,], cooperative actions [F(2, 69)= 86.38, p = .000,], andnon-cooperative actions [F (2, 69) =52.37, p = 000]. Moreover, the interactionbetween flexibility and age was almost significant regarding neutral actions [F (4,69)=3.10, p= .020] and non-cooperative actions [F (4, 69)=2.26, p= .071]. It ispossible to exclude a strong relation among types of actions and age {the F-valuesfor neutral, cooperative and non-cooperative actions are respectively: [F (2,69)=.15, p=.855]; [F (2, 69)=.63, p= .532]; [F (2, 69)=.01, p= .984]} and gender{the F-values for neutral, cooperative and non-cooperative actions are respectively:[F (1, 69)=2.83, p= .096]; [F (1, 69)=2.78, p=.0999]; [F (1, 69)=1.38, p= .243]}.The η2 is .32 for neutral actions, .73 for cooperative actions and .64 for non-cooperative actions.
  12. 12. 354 S. Ciairano, S. Bonino, R. Miceli/ Cognition, Brain, Behavior 10 (2006) 343-366 The comparisons between means were made by the Duncans MultipleRange Test (p<.05). The HHFF pairs put in act the smallest number of neutralactions (Graph 1). Neutral Cooperative Non-cooperative70 65.96 a6050 c 41.3940 36.02 b 36.88 b30 34.1 b20 26.67 a 21.58 b10 13.29 c 9.87 a0 HHFF MMFF LLFFGraph 1 Means of the actions by type of pairsNote: the means with the same letter are not significantly different from each other (p<.05). The maximum number of cooperative actions were realised by the HHFFpairs (64% of their actions were cooperative) and the minimum by the LLFF pairs.Conversely, the maximum number of non-cooperative actions were realised by theLLFF pairs (40% of their actions were non-cooperative) and the minimum by theHHFF pairs. In general, the distribution was quite predictable, as we hypothesised,on the basis of the Stroop Effect interference registered for the subjects. TheMMFF pairs were comprised of subjects who registered an interference smallerthan that of the subjects forming the LLFF pairs and greater than that of thesubjects forming the LLFF pairs. In the interaction task the MMFF pairscooperated more than the LLFF pairs and less than the HHFF pairs. All thecomparisons among different types of pair were significant. The strategies used by different kinds of pairs at the three ages wereconsistent (Graph 2). The pairs with high flexibility produced always the greatestnumber of cooperative actions and the least number of neutral and non-cooperativeones. On the contrary, the pairs at low flexibility produced always the greatestnumber of non-cooperative actions and the least number of cooperative ones. Thegreatest number of neutral actions was produced at 7 years and 11 years by theMMFF pairs, and at 9 years by the LLFF pairs.
  13. 13. S. Ciairano, S. Bonino, R. Miceli/ Cognition, Brain, Behavior 10 (2006) 343-366 35580 Neutral Cooperative Non-cooperative 7270 6960 57 4950 38 39 39 4440 35 36 37 33 35 3230 31 31 24 23 2420 22 18 18 12 1110 11 11 6 0 HHFF MMFF LLFF HHFF MMFF LLFF HHFF MMFF LLFF year 7 year 7 year 7 year 9 year 9 year 9 year 11 year 11 year 11Graph 2 Means of the actions by age and type of pairs Therefore, the role of flexibility in thinking is further confirmed: thechildren with low flexibility seem to be unable to halt non-cooperative actions. Theresults underline that the most popular social strategy used by a certain type of pairis the same, considering different age groups. Besides, it is interesting to notice thatthe differences between high and low flexibility children were more evident for theage of 9 years: here, pairs with high flexibility produced a greater number ofcooperative actions than the same pairs of the lower age and a lesser number ofnon-cooperative ones than the same pairs at both the younger and elder age groups;pairs with low flexibility, on the other hand, produce a greater number of non-cooperative actions and a lesser number of cooperative ones than similar pairs of 7and 11 years. The puzzle game: analysis of verbalisations Flexibility had a great relationship with neutral verbalisations [F (2, 69)=15.83, p=.000], cooperative [F (2, 69)=37.80, p=.000] and non-cooperativeverbalisations [F(2, 69)=12.83, p=.000]. Nevertheless, as concerns neutral and non-cooperative verbalisations, it has also to be taken into account the relationships
  14. 14. 356 S. Ciairano, S. Bonino, R. Miceli/ Cognition, Brain, Behavior 10 (2006) 343-366with age that was almost significant in the first case [F (2, 69)=2.51, p=.088], andsignificant in the second [F (2, 69) =4.04, p=.021]. There were no genderdifferences; the F values for neutral, cooperative and non-cooperativeverbalisations are respectively: {[F (1, 69)=.28, p=.598]; [F (1, 69)=.00, p=.970]; 2[F (1, 69)= .14, p=.706]}. The η is .40 for both neutral and non-cooperative, and.55 for cooperative verbalisations. The minimum of neutral verbalisations was registered by the HHFF pairs(Graph 3) and the maximum was scored by the LLFF pairs (50 % of theirverbalizations were non-cooperative): all the comparisons among the HHFF pairsand the other types of pairs were significant. The maximum of cooperativeverbalisations was registered by the HHFF pairs (82% of their verbalizations werecooperative): the comparisons between this type of pair and the others were allsignificant. Neutral Cooperative Non-cooperative40 35.23 a353025 19.38 c20 17.48 b15 15.63 b10 12.07 b 11.45 b 4.24 a5 6.95 c 3.26 a0 HHFF MMFF LLFFGraph 3 Means of the verbalisations by type of pairsNote: the means with the same letter are not significantly different from each other (p<.05). The HHFF pairs also scored the minimum of non-cooperativeverbalisations: the only comparison not significant is that between them andMMFF pairs. The production of neutral, cooperative and non-cooperative verbalisationsby different types of pairs was analysed in the three age groups (Graph 4). The twomain elements underlined by the analysis of actions (a particular shape of theinteractive strategies used by each type of pair and the consistency of such a shapein different age groups) were confirmed by the analysis of the language. For bothlevels of behaviour considered (actions, language), the cognitive flexibility showedto be extremely important in the choice of certain strategies rather than others.However, with respect to the action there were also some differences. In fact,regarding the production of not cooperative verbalisations the LLFF pairs were
  15. 15. S. Ciairano, S. Bonino, R. Miceli/ Cognition, Brain, Behavior 10 (2006) 343-366 357slightly surpassed by the MMFF pairs at both 7 and 11 years. However, at 9 yearsthe production of non-cooperative verbalisations by the LLFF pairs was muchhigher than that of the other types of pair, and this difference is even higher thanthat scored at the action level. Furthermore, there was a breakdown of non-cooperative verbalisations produced by pairs at low flexibility (LLFF) of 11 years. Neutral Cooperative Non-cooperative40 38 3835 32 303025 2020 17 17 17 17 1615 15 15 13 13 12 1210 10 11 10 9 5 5 4 3 4 4 3 3 0 HHFF HHFF HHFF MMFF MMFF MMFF LLFF LLFF LLFF year 7 year 9 year 11 year 7 year 9 year 11 year 7 year 9 year 11Graph 4 Means of the verbalisations by age and type of pairs The language: moving beyond the given situation Flexibility also turned out to be important in relation to the production of 2not task-centered language [F (2, 69)=55.11, p=.000, η = .64]. Neither genderdifferences nor age were significant. There were no significant relation betweentotal amount of task-centered language and flexibility [F (2, 69)=.91, p=.40], while 2there was a significant relation with age [F (2, 69)=3.20, p=.04, η = .22]. Theresults of the mean comparisons confirmed that the highest mean of not task-centered language was produced by the pairs with high flexibility. All thecomparisons among the HHFF pairs and the others were significant.
  16. 16. 358 S. Ciairano, S. Bonino, R. Miceli/ Cognition, Brain, Behavior 10 (2006) 343-366 Not task-centered Task-centered50 45.19 a45 42.73 a 37.79 a4035302520 15.18 a1510 5.71 b5 1.47 c0 HHFF MMFF LLFFGraph 5 Means of the task-centered and not task-centered verbalisations by type of pairsNote: the means with the same letter are not significantly different from each other (p<.05). Only the pairs with high flexibility in thinking were able to use language togo beyond the given situation. The percentage of not task-centered verbalisationsproduced by the LLFF pairs is so low as to be irrelevant (4%). On the other handthe quota of not task-centered language produced by the HHFF pairs is quiteappreciable (26 %). The importance of flexibility in the production of not task-centered language was also confirmed at different ages: the HHFF pairs alwaysscored the maximum (Graph 6). Besides the not task-centered verbalisationsproduced by the LLFF pairs was the lowest by 11 years. Successful and unsuccessful interactions The four analyses of variance carried out on the 87 pairs, which take intoaccount the relationships among cognitive flexibility, gender, age and theproduction of successful and unsuccessful interactions, underlined a parallel shapefor the behavioural and the linguistic level. The flexibility was highly significant 2both in relation to successful interactive actions [F 2, 69)= 68.16, p =.000, η = .71] 2and language [F (2, 69)= 49.87, p=.000, η = .63]. Regarding successful actions,the age [F (2,69)= 4.02, p=.02] and the interaction between flexibility and age[F (4, 69) =2.44, p=.05] were also significant. Regarding failures, only the 2flexibility was significant: in the case of actions [F (2, 69) = 35.65, p=.000, η = 2.56], and for language [F (2, 69)= 13.34, p=000, η = .37]. The HHFF pairs scoredthe maximum of successful interactions (their succesful interactions representedalmost the total of those attempted), both for actions and language (Graph 7). Thecomparisons among different types of pairs were all significant. The maximumnumber of unsuccessful interactions was realised by the LLFF pairs (their
  17. 17. S. Ciairano, S. Bonino, R. Miceli/ Cognition, Brain, Behavior 10 (2006) 343-366 359unsuccesful interactions represented the 63% of those attempted) both for actionand language 60 Not task-centered Task-centered 55 50 48 46 46 46 42 40 35 32 30 27 20 18 13 14 10 6 6 5 2 2 1 0 HHFF HHFF HHFF MMFF MMFF MMFF LLFF LLFF LLFF year 7 year 9 year 11 year 7 year 9 year 11 year 7 year 9 year 11Graph 6 Means of the task-centered and not task-centered verbalisations by age and typeof pairs Successful actions Unsuccessful actions Successful language Unsuccessful language50 47.53 a45403530 29.97 a 27.14 b25 21.86 c20 17.56 c15 10.74 b10 10.42 b 9.46 b 5 7.67 b 0.4 a 1.22 c 0 0.1 a HHFF MMFF LLFF
  18. 18. 360 S. Ciairano, S. Bonino, R. Miceli/ Cognition, Brain, Behavior 10 (2006) 343-366Graph 7 Means of interactions by type of pairsNote: the means with the same letter are not significantly different from each other (p<.05).and language, but the comparison between this group and the MMFF pairs was notsignificant for language. However, the lowest number of unsuccessful interactionswas always realised by the HHFF pairs. This general pattern did not change considering different age groups andfor this reason the complete results are not reported here: the HHFF pairs werealways the most competent in effectuating successful interactions. However, at abehavioral level the successes were higher than the failures also for the LLFF pairsof 11 years. Cooperation: beyond ability The relationships among flexibility, gender, age and the number of piecesnot used at the end of the game or the total time taken to finish the puzzle were alsoinvestigated. The cognitive flexibility had a significant relation with the number ofpieces [F (2, 69)=3.24, p=.04] and the total time to finish [F (2, 69)= 5.0, p = .009].However, there were also significant relations with age; for the number of pieces[F (2, 69)= 6.71, p=.002] and for the time taken to finish [F (2, 69)= 4.65, p=.01]. 2The η is .27 for the pieces and .30 for the time. Pieces not used Time used (seconds) 700 599 600 595 600 600 567 577 558 508 500 466 400 300 200 100 22 27 22 32 5 10 11 17 17 0 HHFF HHFF HHFF MMFF MMFF MMFF LLFF LLFF LLFF year 7 year 9 year 11 year 7 year 9 year 11 year 7 year 9 year 11Graph 8 Time used and pieces not used by age and type of pairs
  19. 19. S. Ciairano, S. Bonino, R. Miceli/ Cognition, Brain, Behavior 10 (2006) 343-366 361 Regarding the mean comparisons for the number of pieces (Graph 8) onlythose among the HHFF and the LLFF pairs were significant: at all the ages, theHHFF pairs left the least number of pieces. The HHFF pairs used a mean of45.69 5 pieces against 37.94 used by the LLFF pairs. Concerning the mean time tofinish the task (expressed in seconds), that of the HHFF pairs was always the least.The comparisons among HHFF and LLFF pairs were significant, as were thoseamong HHFF and MMFF, while the comparisons among MMFF and LLFF pairswere not. Discussion Our hypotheses were substantially confirmed. With respect to the firsthypothesis, a greater cognitive flexibility seems to correspond indeed to a greatercompetence in social relations with peers, for all the ages taken into account. Thechildren with high flexibility in thinking, identified by means of the Stroop Effect,were more likely to use strategies aimed at realising a shared goal with the partner,both at the behavioural and at the linguistic level. In pairs with high cognitiveflexibility we also saw a lower production of those strategies not useful in reachinga shared goal with the partner even if they do not represent a clear attempt toobstruct him/her. Conversely, the children we identified as having low cognitiveflexibility proved their incapacity to decentralise themselves from a strictlyindividual point of view and abandon an immediate advantage. Even a smalldifference in flexibility marks a difference in the ability to interact with peers in thesocial situation we analysed: children at medium flexibility managed a socialsituation in an intermediate way compared to children at high and low flexibility inthinking. Furthermore with respect to the second hypothesis, the difference betweenpairs with high and low cognitive flexibility was also evident in the production oflanguage not task-centred and in the fulfillment of interactions. Pairs with highflexibility produced verbalisations that in some way digress from or go beyond therealisation of the goal (to finish the task). Their minds were not entirely occupiedby reaching the prefixed goal and by what they are doing: this seems to us a goodindicator of their capacity to leave the present situation aside for a moment andassume a certain distance towards it. Besides, with respect to the third hypothesis almost all the social attemptsof the high flexibility pairs were successful, demonstrating the ability of the5 The mean value of the pieces that the pair were not able to use at the end of the 10minutes of play: they are 13.97 for the pairs with high flexibility (HHFF) and 21.72 forthose with low flexibility in thinking (LLFF). For the three ages the mean number of thepuzzle pieces is 59.66 where 49,60,70 is the number of puzzle pieces respectively for 7, 9and 11 years.
  20. 20. 362 S. Ciairano, S. Bonino, R. Miceli/ Cognition, Brain, Behavior 10 (2006) 343-366partners to think and act reciprocally, whereas low flexibility pairs collected a greatnumber of failures. However the hypothesised lack of differences between pairs with high andlow flexibility regarding their practical ability to finish the task was not confirmed:children with high flexibility were also faster in finishing the task. Finally, as wehave hypothesised (fourth hypothesis) no significant difference in competence tointeract linked to gender was identified. The results offer some important indications regarding the possible role ofcognitive flexibility in social relations: the cognitive processes used by anindividual contribute in determining the type of social strategies that he/she is ableto carry out in playing with peers. The cognitive flexibility is strictly linked to theability to cooperate with another individual and to reach a goal which is shared byboth partners, working not against him/her but together with him/her. Flexibility allows the individual to elaborate a more complexrepresentation of the task taking into account the importance of all the elements atstake. To solve the interactive situation of the puzzle in a cooperative way, eachchild in the pair has to put the general structure of the task before his/her individualinterest in the possession of a single piece: the pieces of the puzzle may become ameaningful object only if the two children put them together. Children with highcognitive flexibility are more able to share a goal with the playing partners: theiractions and verbalisations are organised in a common project. Each of the childrenat high flexibility demonstrated their ability to represent the whole situation in amore global and complex way compared with children in low flexibility pairs.Moreover children with high cognitive flexibility showed their competence to takeinto account the presence of another individual and his/her point of view. Theyused actions and verbalisations adequate to help their partner and themselvesprogress towards the common goal. The ability of children with high flexibility tomanage a social situation is so well developed that they can allow themselves to gobeyond the present situation in their use of language: not only are they able to worktogether but they can also enjoy themselves. The abilities to elaborate a more complex representation of a certainsituation, sharing a goal with others, building one’s common project, actingtogether and taking into account the existence of points of view different from theirown are all necessary in successfully facing the complexity of social relationships. Children with low flexibility were less capable of taking the wholesituation into account. Their behaviour was more impulsive and fragmentary: theyworked without a common project and fighted for the personal possession of apuzzle’ piece that have to be assembled a few minutes later. They seemed not to beable to consider the presence of another individual and his/her point of view andthey resorted to less adaptive social strategies, such as aggressive behaviour. Oftenthey did not use language as an efficient instrument for communication and sharingof ideas, but rather to denigrate the work of the other and his/her ability tocomplete the puzzle. The incapacity of children with low flexibility in thinking to
  21. 21. S. Ciairano, S. Bonino, R. Miceli/ Cognition, Brain, Behavior 10 (2006) 343-366 363elaborate a complex representation of the whole situation, refraining from theirtendency to resort automatically to non-cooperative behaviour, decentralisingthemselves from a strictly individual point of view, not being wholly dependent onthe present and immediate situation, seems to indicate interaction strategies whichare less capable of positively dealing with social relationships. Automaticresponses acquired during former events and stored in the mind are not always ableto deal adequately with requests made by other individuals or situations differentfrom that in which these responses were originally used. The development of theability to inhibit automatic responses may lead more suitable strategies. Despite the limitation due to the cross-sectional design, the presentresearch underline that the particular interactive strategies used by pairs of childrenat high and low cognitive flexibility are similar at different ages. We think that alongitudinal continuation of the same research may unearth further knowledgeabout this topic. Another possible further investigation concerns the relationbetween social competence and use of language. In our research we underlinedhow the difference between low and high flexibility pairs is more evident at thelinguistic level. Language, in fact, offers individuals the fundamental possibility tocoordinate their different points of view. Conclusion In the present study we argue that the higher the cognitive flexibility,measured by the way of the Stroop Effect, the higher also the social competence ofthe children aged from 7 to 11 years, and particularly cooperation. Our hypothesesseem to be supported by the results obtained in a situation that was structured asnear as posible to ecological conditions. Besides, different aspects of socialinteractions with peers were considered: action, language (both task-oriented andnot task-oriented), successful or not successful interactions, performance. All ofthem were showed strongly related to the children’s capacity inhibit an automaticprocess, that is reading instead of naming. Therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that the possession of a mindpermits human beings to make the qualitative leap to cooperation. Competence incooperating was analysed here in relation to cognitive flexibility - an “internalfactor”. Fonzi already underlined (1991) that there are many factors involved in thecompetence to cooperate and that they may interact in a non linear manner. Someof these factors, such as individual characteristics, are internal, while others, suchas the parental or teacher style, are external. More detailed knowledge of theprocesses by which the competence to cooperate is developed may proveextremely useful to the social projects of the human beings. From an appliedperspective, it would be very useful to investigate further the processes thatunderpin the development of cooperative strategies and the forms and modalitiesthat these assume in different life phases. A wider knowledge of the processesinvolved in cooperation may lead to the individuation of strategies and the creation
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