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A Close Look at Nature vs. Nurture

Psychology Professor shares her research for University’s Distinguished Scholar lecture

Posted in: Faculty Voices, Humanities and Social Sciences, Research, University

Psychology Professor Laura Lakusta, University Distinguished Scholar 2019-2020

“If you’ve ever been around a crying infant, you may have concluded that the world of a newborn is one great ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’ …” So begins the lecture – and the nature vs. nurture debate – presented by this academic year’s University Distinguished Scholar, Psychology Professor Laura Lakusta.

For the past 15 years, Lakusta has focused on language and cognitive development, and most recently leadership, in research within one of oldest philosophical fields of psychology. 

“Is the world of a newborn really a big ‘booming, buzzing confusion’?” she asks referencing theorist William James. “Or do infants initially, and that is from birth, bring a rich knowledge base which may serve as a foundation and support subsequent learning?” 

In her lecture to the University community – presented virtually due to the state’s stay-at-home orders –  Lakusta explores the timeless theme while sharing her own extensive studies on inherited traits and learned behaviors. Research makes it increasingly clear that both nature and nurture play a role, she says.

The University’s Distinguished Scholar Award recognizes Montclair State faculty who have developed a distinguished record of scholarly or creative achievement, says University Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Willard Gingerich. “This award provided Laura with enhanced opportunities to implement two active, competitive research programs and the opportunity to share with the campus community her work exploring the domains of language and cognitive development, and a new line of research that explores the impact of nature and nurture in leadership development.”

As Lakusta explains in the presentation, “Nature and Nurture in Spatial Cognition and Beyond,” the nature and nurture theme is by no means solely of interest to the field of psychology, “but one that applies to a range of disciplines, including philosophy, cognitive science, linguistics, education, biology, genetics, et cetera, et cetera.” 

“The field is in agreement that it’s not an either/or question. It’s not, is it nature or is it nurture that contributes to development. But the question is how do they contribute? How can we understand how nature and nurture work together to drive development forward?”

Lakusta has published repeatedly – often with her students – in some of the most competitive journals in cognitive and developmental psychology, including the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and since 2008 she has presented more than 50 invited papers and conference posters.  

The studies of language and cognition – which have been supported with two different grants totaling about $900,000 from the National Science Foundation – test whether and how representations of spatial knowledge in children 6 months to 5 years can be influenced by environmental input. A portion of this work is a collaborative project with Barbara Landau, professor of Cognitive Science at Johns Hopkins University.

The main finding is that infants’ representations of events can support language learning. In the lab setting, for example, the researchers look at how infants and children interpret the world around them, and think about objects and actions. As explained in the lecture, this includes simple events, such as a duck moving out of a bowl or a leaf blowing into a box. 

“You may be surprised at how much infants actually do seem to know within just a few months of life or even just a year,” Lakusta says.

A new study of leadership development, in collaboration with Montclair State Psychology Professor Jennifer Bragger, explores the broad questions of whether children are predisposed to develop into certain types of leaders and how environmental context may influence leadership development. Specifically, Lakusta and Bragger are testing how children, adolescents and adults perceive the distinctions between different leadership types, and whether Theory of Mind development, humility and self-awareness play a role in leadership emergence.

“We’re looking at how people become servant leaders,” Lakusta says. “These are leaders that primarily lead by focusing on their followers. They lead by empowering their followers by guiding, by developing their followers. By doing this, by focusing on their followers, they’re actually able to attain goals.”

The research takes place in Montclair State’s Cognitive and Language Development Lab, where Lakusta leads teams of student researchers. The lab is among the University’s clinical labs in psychology that have received grant funding for research.

“The students really made it happen,” Lakusta says. “They do everything from reading and presenting empirical and theoretical research to coding and analyzing and interpreting data to assisting me with participant testing. They go out into the community on a Sunday afternoon to help recruit children at community fairs. They assist with IRB (Institutional Review Board). The research would not be possible without them.”

Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren.

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