"I really want to understand how the human mind grows, develops, and works! Not just the human mind in cities in North America, Europe, but everywhere.” Tanya Broesch (Above left, pictured with Fran, a local from Lounikawek village, Tanna, Vanuatu, and a member of Broesch's research team since 2012)

Research, Psychology

Research Profile: Tanya Broesch, Psychology

August 30, 2017

Prior to joining the Department of Psychology as an Assistant Professor in 2012, Tanya Broesch completed her graduate degrees at Emory University (USA) and her undergraduate work at St. Francis Xavier in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, where she grew up.  She says she came to SFU because of its reputation for engaging the community and for its creativity. “I was drawn to SFU, and when a position opened up, I applied. The stars aligned and I was offered a position in an incredible department!”

Broesch, a developmental psychologist, is currently working on a number of projects studying how early experience shapes development. She is specifically examining how early parenting behaviours and choices shape the human social mind. She says, “I need to know how the stuff we do with children affects their development. There are many unanswered questions out there – it’s complex, but there are some certainties that need uncovering. I really want to understand how the human mind grows, develops, and works! Not just the human mind in cities in North America, Europe, but everywhere.”

Along with her research team, Broesch studies data gathered in different countries, including Bolivia, Fiji, Peru and the Central African Republic. One project uses video recordings of children and compares daily experiences – how much time do children spend with one caregiver, playing with friends, talking, being talked to, and caring for other children. Another project looks at how fathers play and interact with babies and asks whether the quality and quantity of time a father spends with the child impacts child academic or social success. Yet another examines attachment and caregiving at Broesch’s field site in Vanuatu, a remote, isolated region of the world where children have little exposure to Western ideals and parenting styles.

At the Vanuatu Field Lab.

No matter the location, Broesch intends for her work to make an impact, not only in terms of how we understand childhood development, but also in terms of how it gets studied. She cites a 2010 review that found that more than 95% of research (on child development specifically and social science more broadly) came from Western Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies (Heinrich et al 2010). “Unfortunately,” says Broesch, “evidence suggests that WEIRD societies may not be representative of the world’s larger population. Currently, folks have begun to recognize the problem and started to explore ways to understand the human mind beyond the university borders.”

By broadening the idea of representative samples, Broesch explains, she hopes to more accurately reflect the lived circumstances of children, globally: “To understand whether children are doing OK, we must first understand the basic elements of development. We need to understand the amazing variabity in the social environments in which children grow. For example, if a child is first raised in a non-Western, rural environment and then immigrates to an urban city in Canada, for example, we need to know what is normal for the environment in which that child was raised.”

Children in Vanuatu.

Broesch grew up in a small university town, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, which she describes as “an incredibly close-knit community with more of a collective-mindset” than other places she’s lived. While she says she’s “always been curious about different cultures and understanding similarities and differences in thinking,” it wasn’t until she traveled to Kenya in 2001 that she became interested in developmental psychology. “I noticed that children had different experiences and this seemed to shape how they approached the world. I thought, what better way to investigate cultural psychology than to start at the roots – to begin with babies and look at how their experiences affect them.”

Broesch says her research is rewarding: “first, I get to work in communities and with families. In Vanuatu, I work with a local village – I’ve watched children grow and developed long-lasting friendships with families. It’s also been rewarding to watch the students at SFU grow and develop. Second, as with any research, the process of discovery is invigorating. When the numbers start to come in and tell a story – it’s like you’ve just witnessed something for the first time. That’s incredibly rewarding for me and the students I work with.”

“I’m thrilled to be working on this natural observation dataset from 5 societies around the globe. This will give us a quantitative snapshot into the lives of children in distinct societies. I am also looking forward to understanding more about children’s experience with nature – and how that shapes their understanding of the pressing environmental issues facing the next generation.”