Parental presence switches avoidance to attraction learning in children


Attachment-related learning (that is, forming preferences for cues associated with the parent) defies the traditional rules of learning in that it seems to occur independently of apparent reinforcement1—young children prefer cues associated with their parent, regardless of valence (rewarding or aversive), despite the diversity of parenting styles2. This obligatory attraction for parental cues keeps the child nearby and safe to explore the environment; thus, it is critical for survival and sets the foundation for normal human cognitive–emotional behaviour. Here we examined the learning underlying this attraction in preschool-age children. Young children underwent an aversive conditioning procedure either in the parent’s presence or alone. We showed that despite disliking the aversive unconditioned stimulus, children exhibited a behavioural approach for conditioned stimuli that were acquired in the parent’s presence and an avoidance for stimuli acquired in the parent’s absence, an effect that was strongest among those with the lowest cortisol levels. The results suggest that learning systems during early childhood are constructed to permit modification by parental presence.

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Fig. 1: Schematic of study design.
Fig. 2: Behavioural and physiological evidence of CS+/CS− learning.
Fig. 3: Effect of parental presence on behavioural preference.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Code availability

The code that supports the findings of this study is available from the author on reasonable request.


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This research was supported in part by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Grant R37HD083217 (to R.M.S.) and the National Institute of Mental Health Grant R01MH091864 (to N.T.) The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript. The authors thank A. Galván for her helpful feedback on previous drafts.

Author information




N.T., M.S. and R.M.S. designed the study. N.T., M.S., J.F. and C.C. performed the experiments, data processing and analysis. N.T. and R.M.S. wrote the manuscript and provided overall direction.

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Correspondence to Nim Tottenham.

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Tottenham, N., Shapiro, M., Flannery, J. et al. Parental presence switches avoidance to attraction learning in children. Nat Hum Behav 3, 1070–1077 (2019).

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