A developmental assessment of the cognitive principle of leveling-sharpening in two interpersonal-emotional contexts: Aggression and affiliation

Mary Elizabeth Ford Clark (1992)

This study examines how children of different ages deal with two cognitive tasks that are identical except that one consists of stimuli depicting aggression and the other depicts affiliation. An underlying premise to this study is that children are better able to learn and behave in the classroom when they are able to attend to the external details of their environment while at the same time bringing depth and meaning from their inner world to increase their understanding. On some occasions the meanings and fantasies from the child's inner world may dominate over details in the child's environment, or on other occasions the environment may dominate over the inner world. In both instances, cognition is not balancing and coordinating the child's inner world and external environment, which may in turn, impact on the child's ability to learn and behave in the classroom. Leveling-sharpening concerns the manner in which an individual is able to construct and maintain stable images from memory and then compare those images with present perceptions in the aide of adaptation. A non-clinical population of children (N = 185), ranging in age from 5-15 years was assessed for leveling-sharpening abilities with the Leveling-Sharpening Friends Test and the Leveling-Sharpening Shoot-Out Test. Both tests were administered to the same subject allowing a comparison of that subject's performance, both individually and with classmates to provide an assessment as to whether and to what degree the cognitive process of leveling-sharpening reorganized regressively or progressively in response to the aggressive versus the affiliative contexts. The results provide further evidence that children, as they increase in age and developmental maturity, are better able to construct sharper, more differentiated images and are better able to distinguish them from present perceptions so that subtle similarities and differences between past and present information are noticed. The second main finding is that children in this study sharpened more with aggressive stimuli than with affiliative stimuli. This finding and others raise interesting questions regarding parochial school children, and boys and girls of different ages and how they handle aggressive and affiliative information.