Psychology student Clare Maguire studies empathy and executive function in preschoolers
8/20/2019 3:27:16 PM

CMaguire_webClare Maguire is planning to spend her summer in preschool.

Maguire, a fourth-year honours psychology student from Truro, NS, is studying the relationship between empathy and executive function in preschoolers for her honours thesis.

“Empathy is to understand what others are feeling and react to it and feel it yourself,” she explains. “Executive function is a term for the ensemble of processes that govern and regulate your thoughts, actions, and behaviours — self-regulation skills that can involve intuition and impulse control as well as activating and inhibiting behaviours.”

Maguire’s work, which is supervised by Dr. Nancy Garon, is supported by an independent summer research grant and gives her a head start on her thesis.

“Over the summer I’m going to start background literature review, practise the tasks in the preschools, and do a bit of writing,” she says. “I have also begun data collection and have travelled to a number of schools in Moncton and Riverview.”

Maguire says psychology is a relatively young science and there is not a lot of existing research on the interactions between empathy and executive function in young children. Complicating the work is the fact there are many models to illustrate empathy.

“It is nice to have the summer to look at the different models and collect my thoughts,” she says.

Maguire’s research will involve working with preschoolers in local daycares, having them do specific tasks that are presented as games, but that help researchers better understand their thought processes.

“Probably the best task that uses empathy and executive function is we have a baby doll and we will ask them to take care of it and feed it, but then the baby doll will start to cry,” she explains, adding the children need to burp the baby to get it to stop crying. “It is an empathy plus executive function task — you need to keep a hold of your own emotions and the fact that you are upsetting the baby by burping them because that is best for them. I’m really looking forward to seeing how different kids approach this.”

Maguire initially was a biology major.

“I was taking cognitive processes courses with Dr. (Jennifer) Tomes and it was the coolest course I’d ever taken. I was doing upper-year course selection and kept gravitating to the psychology courses and I finally thought, ‘Why not just switch to psych?’” she says. “I really like people — learning about people and the different thought processes and behaviours that we have. There is so much we don’t know and so much new stuff going on all the time. It is really a field where the more you know the less you know.”

Outside academics, Maguire is passionate about music. She has been the co-producer of Conduct Becoming — an annual album featuring Mount Allison students that raises money for cancer research — for two years and the manager for one. She also co-directs the Acapella Club and is a member of the Elliott Chorale.

“Getting to know all the Music people has been very special to me,” she says. “There is always live music and free concerts in the conservatory. There is always something going on at Mount Allison, which is quite nice.”

Maguire plans to continue her studies after graduating from Mount Allison and is currently looking at both graduate and speech pathology programs.