Affectionate Contact and Theory of Mind Abilities of Parent-Child Dyads
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This study was conducted to investigate the extent to which affectionate physical contact (i.e., cuddling) affects preschoolers’ and parents’ abilities to engage in theory-of-mind reasoning. We explored the hypothesis that if affectionate contact affected theory-of-mind, then preschoolers and parents who cuddled would outperform those who did not. To test this hypothesis, we recruited 44 preschool aged children (3.8-4.6-year-olds) and their primary caregivers. We found that children who cuddled with their primary caregiver during a storybook reading task performed significantly better on theory-of-mind tasks compared to children who did not receive a cuddle. Importantly, our findings support the contention that affectionate contact affected children’s performance on theory-of-mind related tasks specifically, but not performance on executive functioning or non-mental representation tasks. A secondary goal of this study was to explore whether any effects of affectionate contact would be mediated by functional polymorphisms of the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR). Although we were unable to obtain a sample size that was sufficient to directly test this hypothesis, we found that parents homozygous for the G allele at rs2254298 were significantly better at decoding the affective mental states of others compared to those who carried at least one A allele. Thus, our results support the hypotheses that affectionate contact promotes children’s theory-of-mind reasoning abilities and that adult’s mental state decoding skills can be predicted by allelic variations on the OXTR gene. This study offers preliminary support for the role of affectionate contact and, separately, the oxytocinergic system on tasks related to theory-of-mind reasoning. These claims are discussed with respect to possible alternative explanations for our findings, as well as future directions to directly test the extent to which such experiential and psychobiological factors can affect theory-of-mind reasoning.