Return to homepage Skip to navigation Skip to site search Skip to main content Skip to footer


First-ever study into how children develop concept of the 'self' awarded £106,336

2 April 2015

An Abertay psychologist has been awarded a £106,336 research grant to explore for the very first time exactly how it is that young children develop the concept of the ‘self’.

Currently a poorly understood area of childhood development, the three-year research project – which is being funded by the Leverhulme Trust - has potential real-world impact.

Recent studies have suggested that applying self-referencing strategies in the classroom provides learning benefits by increasing student engagement and supporting memory.

However, this finding is at present limited by a lack of insight into when exactly self-referencing emerges in childhood and when learning strategies should be targeted.

By systematically charting the emergence of the ‘self’ across childhood – something which has never been done before – it is hoped that the new research will clarify this important issue.

Dr Sheila Cunningham, who will lead the research, explains:

“The self is a concept that influences numerous social, emotional and cognitive processes in adulthood, but we know surprisingly little about its development in childhood.

“By around three years, children can describe autobiographical memories, use personal pronouns to refer to themselves, recognise their reflection in a mirror, and show embarrassment in self-conscious situations.

“These developmental achievements suggest that children have established a sense of self by the end of toddlerhood, although self-knowledge and self-reflection becomes more elaborate with age.”

An important question that Dr Cunningham will be investigating is whether this developing concept of the ‘self’ impacts on cognition.

To find out, she will take an interdisciplinary approach, bringing together previously isolated lines of enquiry from social, cognitive and developmental psychology.

Dr Cunningham continues:

“In terms of cognition, adults and teenaged children show a consistent memory advantage for information processed with reference to the self over information processed about other people, or in other contexts.

“For example, people are more likely to remember being asked the question “are you clever?” than questions like “is David Cameron clever?” or “is clever a positive word?”.

“This memory advantage is known as the self-reference effect – or SRE – and research suggests that the SRE happens for two distinct reasons.

“First, attention is drawn to information that concerns the self – for example when we hear our name mentioned in someone else’s conversation - enhancing our memory for that information.

“Second, we have a rich body of self-knowledge into which new self-relevant information can be easily slotted and stored, again enhancing memory.

“These systems appear to be additive – any incidental link with the self produces a small memory advantage probably driven by attention, but consciously thinking about or evaluating the self leads to a larger effect supported by objective self-knowledge.

“However, to what extent the SRE operates across childhood – which, in this particular context, means before ten years of age - is currently unclear and our project intends to provide clarification.”

The intention with the project is to form a robust basis for future research in both theoretical psychology and applied fields, as well as to assist further with educational strategies.

There are also clear clinical applications. For example, self referencing and how it works may be important in autism spectrum disorders (ASD), so an understanding of how self-processing develops in a wide range of children is vital for producing successful strategies for children with ASD.


For media enquiries please contact Kirsty Cameron T: 01382 308935 M: 07972172158 E:

Back to News