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Making a study of adapting to change

October 2, 2019
Karl Rosengren smiles while sitting on a chair and surrounded by large and small versions of a child's riding toy.Karl Rosengren joined the University faculty this summer, with a research focus on how children think and reason about changes in the world around them. In the process, he's adapting to change himself, as the spouse of the University's new president, Sarah C. Mangelsdorf. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

When Karl Rosengren’s oldest daughter was a toddler, he and his wife—Rochester’s new president, Sarah C. Mangelsdorf—observed her attempting to get into a doll-sized toy car that was no bigger than her foot.

“Sarah and I just cracked up laughing, seeing our daughter trying to fit into this tiny toy,” Rosengren remembers.

But then he got to thinking: why would a child try to perform what, to an adult, was an obviously impossible task?

Since then, Rosengren, who joined the University of Rochester faculty this year as a professor of brain and cognitive sciences and of psychology, has conducted multiple studies on children attempting to perform impossible actions on miniature objects, a phenomenon known as scale error.

“We find that just about every child performs at least one of these scale errors between ages 13 and 24 months, and some children perform them a lot,” Rosengren says. “This suggests children need to learn through trial and error and act on their environment to figure out what they can and can’t do.”

Studying scale errors is just one aspect of Rosengren’s research, which falls under the umbrella of change: how children think and reason about changes in the world around them and how they develop cognitive and motor skills to adapt to changes.

Rosengren and Mangelsdorf have themselves dealt with big changes lately: over the summer they moved from Wisconsin to Rochester, and Rosengren has been busy establishing a new lab on campus to study child development, or, as he puts it, “cognition in action.” The lab will be housed in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, although Rosengren has joint appointments in both brain and cognitive sciences and psychology. Previously, he served as a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Northwestern University, and the University of Illinois.

Most of his current projects involve studying cognition and motor skills in preschool- to late-elementary school-aged children, and he says the city of Rochester offers many opportunities for local collaborations.

“I’m excited to develop relationships with the Museum of Play, the Science Museum, and the MAG [Memorial Art Gallery],” Rosengren says. “Those kinds of facilities here offer a lot of potential for interesting child development projects.”


In terms of scale errors, one of the things Rosengren is interested in is “looking at children who perform a lot of scale errors: are they somehow different and are they different in a meaningful way?” Rosengren asks.

If a child between the ages of 1 and 2 has climbed into and driven a child-sized red car, he found, she will also most likely try to do the same with a much smaller version of the toy.

Scale error in action. (University of Illinois video / Karl Rosengren)

Rosengren says that’s because when a child sees an object like a smaller car, a motor plan is activated in her brain. The motor plan is linked to the series of actions she has performed with the larger car. Young children’s brains don’t process the size of the car, so they aren’t inhibited in performing the action. Adult brains produce similar motor plans, but because they are also able to recognize an object’s size, their motor plans are inhibited, and they don’t try to get into the smaller car.

“It’s possible that performing many repeated scale errors could be some sort of early detection of children prone to inhibitory control issues,” Rosengren says. But he adds that there is still more work to be done to determine if this might lead to early prevention therapies.


Rosengren grew up in suburban New Jersey and received his PhD in developmental and child psychology from the University of Minnesota. As a research psychologist, he became interested in learning how, from an academic perspective, children perceive magic and fantasy. He also became interested in how they understood aging and death.

“Things like metamorphosis are really hard for children to understand. One of the things I’m studying is why this is so difficult,” Rosengren says. “Preschool-age children sometimes appear to treat dramatic changes such as metamorphosis as optional or magical.”

Rosengren enjoyed reading the Harry Potter series of books to his and Mangelsdorf’s two daughters, Emily and Julia, when they were younger. When their oldest daughter Emily was in high school, he co-authored with her an article about how children’s beliefs about magic differ from what’s depicted in the Harry Potter story. The article appeared in the book The Psychology of Harry Potter.

For the past 15 years, Rosengren has studied how children understand and talk about death and how parents influence this understanding. In a recent paper published in the journal Child Development, he and his colleagues reported findings from a study of families in Puebla, Mexico. The research involved attending three annual Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) celebrations and interviewing Mexican families in Puebla about their concept of death.

“The culture is very open about death—talking about it and making a celebration of it,” Rosengren says. “It makes children understand death differently.” The researchers determined that overall, children growing up in Puebla were more accepting of death and responded less negatively to death than children in European-American cultures.

Researchers have found that children in the United States, beginning around age 3,  start asking questions about death and, around age 6, recognize that biological and psychological processes cease after death. However, “in this culture we generally don’t like to talk about illness, death, and sex,” Rosengren says. “The taboo on those topics makes it difficult for children to come to an understanding.”

Yet his research has shown that children are more competent at understanding and coping with death than most parents and teachers might think.

“Part of my goal is to get parents to be more open in talking with their children about death and what they believe happens after death,” Rosengren says. “Mr. Rogers was actually really good at this. He was really honest with children and his notion was that we should talk to children about difficult topics.”


With many different projects in the works, Rosengren is adjusting to his role as both University of Rochester researcher and husband of a university president.

“Being the spouse of a university president is a bigger job than I had imagined,” he says. “I get to see the University in ways most faculty don’t. This is an exciting opportunity for my wife and I’m excited to see what she’s able to do here.”

Plus, he says, he is excited to take in all the University has to offer, including concerts at the Eastman Theatre. “At the University of Wisconsin, we got to sit in box seats at the football games. Here, we get box seats at Eastman.” And, he laughs, as a music lover, “I would rather have the box seats at Eastman.”

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Category: Science & Technology