Study #1 - Detecting Patterns of Location
In this study, we were interested in whether infants were able to pick up on patterns when the visual information was not in one place. We studied 8 month old infants who watched a large screen on which looming, colored shapes appeared in a predictive pattern, but did not always appear in the same place. Interestingly, we found that infants can pick up on patterns when the visual information reappears in the same place, but when the visual stimuli moves to other locations, 8 month olds have trouble detecting a pattern. We believe that the ability to see patterns when objects move to another location develops later during the first year.
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Study #2 - Do babies make visual inferences?
Children can often infer causes of actions when they do not have direct evidence. For instance, they learn that picking up the remote control and pushing a button will turn on the television. They are not physically touching the television, but because it turns on when they push the button, they can infer that this action is what causes the television to turn on.
We wanted to understand whether babies are capable of this type of causal reasoning. Five and eight month old babies came to our lab and watched two different visual representations of this type of reasoning. In the first study, certain objects such as lightning bolts and teddy bears appeared on the screen and predicted the appearance of other objects, such as rattles. Similar to the television example above, we were interested in whether the child could infer which objects caused other objects to appear. In the second study, babies initially watched a little box that lit up and played music when one object was placed on it. Then, the scenario changed and two objects were placed on the box, which again lit up and played music. By measuring the babies’ response to these scenarios we were able to determine whether they thought the second object was responsible for making the box light up or not. We learned that eight month olds are very good at this type of causal reasoning. Five months olds, however, indicated that they were able to pick up on certain patterns, but were not yet able to completely integrate this information such that they could infer the appropriate outcome. This leads us to believe that understanding causation develops over the first year of life.
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Study #3 - Where does the chair end and the teddy begin?
How do young infants look at the world? For instance, if they are looking at a teddy bear that is leaning against a chair, do they realize that the teddy is separate from the chair? We believe that it is the constantly repeating patterns in their visual world that allow infants to make sense of what they see. For instance, during their first year, infants frequently view objects with parts that always appear together. In the case of the teddy bear and the chair, children learn that things with heads usually have a torso with arms and legs attached, and therefore, they realize that the teddy bear is one complete object and the chair is a separate object. We want to understand when infants begin grouping shapes together.
We studied both 8 and 10 month old babies who watched objects on a screen that were made up of three distinctly colored shapes and parts. As the infant watched these forms reappear on the screen, two of the three parts always stayed together and the third part changed shape and color. (See illustration.) Once the child was familiar with this pattern, we altered it so the two parts that had always appeared together no longer did. We measured how long the child looked at the familiar pattern verses the unfamiliar pattern, since children tend to look longer at new images. We concluded that 8 and 10 month olds were able to understand which parts were meant to stay together and which part was irrelevant.
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Study #4 – Color Patterns
We believe that infants detect and use consistent cues, or patterns, in their environment in their first year of life. In Study #1 we learned that 8 month old babies are not able to pick up on a pattern when shapes are varied and do not appear in the same place. With this in mind, we wanted to understand whether 5 and 8 month olds would notice a pattern if we kept the shapes consistent (a circle) and the location consistent (always in the middle of the screen). The only varied pattern in this scenario was color. For instance, a red circle would always follow a pink circle, and a blue circle would always follow an orange circle. The infants watched a particular color pattern until we believed they recognized the pattern. We then showed them a different pattern and measured how much time they spent looking at the new versus the old pattern. Interestingly, neither 5 nor 8 month olds indicated that they were able to detect a difference in the different patterns of color. We believe that infants at this age may be able to detect patterns when additional cues, such as shape and sound, are also used. However, color alone, is not a strong enough cue at this age.
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Study #5 – Shape Patterns
This study is similar to the Color Patterns study above. Instead of studying how well five and eight month olds pick up on patterns of color, however, we looked at how well they identified patterns of shape. For this study, we kept the color (green) and location (in the middle of the screen) consistent. The only things we varied were the patterns of shapes children saw. For example, infants might have seen a triangle followed by a square, circle or diamond. Infants watched a particular shape pattern for a few minutes until it was possible that they recognized the pattern. We then showed them a different pattern of shapes and measured how much time they spent looking at the new versus the old pattern.
Our hypothesis was that infants would notice a difference in the patterns if they spent more time looking at the new pattern versus the old. Interestingly, neither five nor eight month olds indicated that they were able to detect a difference. Later, we tested 11 month olds, but this group also could not detect a change in the shape patterns. As with the study above, we believe that infants 5-11 months of age may be able to detect patterns when additional cues, such as color and sound, are also used. However, shape alone is not a strong enough cue at this age.
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Study #6 – I Know What's Next!
Studies of pattern detection beg the question – how quickly do infants start noticing the patterns and responding to them? Does it take them 15 seconds, 60 seconds, or many minutes? And if they do recognize a pattern, does their response to it improve as they continue to see the pattern?
Again, this study was similar to Study #1, in that colored shapes appeared in a predictive pattern, but this time they always appeared in the same place. The child watched a grid that was three boxes wide and two boxes deep. Six differently colored objects were paired and would appear in a predictive order. For instance, a green triangle always appeared in the top right box and it was always followed by a pink star in the middle bottom box. And a red square always appeared in the middle top box and it was followed by a yellow circle in the bottom left box. And a purple cross always appeared in the top left box and it was always followed by an orange hexagon in the bottom right box. By carefully tracking and timing the eye movements of the 8 month olds in this study, we learned that not only are these infants able to quickly detect a pattern by looking to where the next object was going to appear, but, as they became more familiar with the pattern, they were also much faster at moving their eyes to the next, correct location.
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Study #7 - Out of sight. Not out of mind.
Understanding that an object continues to exist even when it temporarily disappears from sight is challenging for young infants. Infants under the age of four months tend to believe that if they cannot see an object, it simply does not exist. We wanted to assess whether the addition of another sensory cue, such as sound, would help infants better track a moving object that temporarily disappears. For instance, if a child watches a moving car that travels behind a house for a few seconds, would the addition of sound coming from the car help the child realize that the car continues to exist? Would he therefore move his gaze to the other side of the house in anticipation of the car reappearing?
To test this theory, four month olds watched a screen on which different shapes passed back and forth behind a wall (see illustration). We found that babies were much more likely to anticipate the reappearance of objects (by moving their eyes to the other side of the wall prior to the object reappearing) when sound accompanied the moving object. This behavior confirmed our theory that the addition of sound can significantly help infants track a moving object that temporarily disappears from sight.
We further tested our hypothesis by coordinating the sound so that it moved in the opposite direction of the shape on the screen. We did this to insure that the children weren’t simply following the sound while unaware of the visual object. In this case, we found that the four month olds continue to follow the object. However, they followed less faithfully than when the sound mimicked the movement of the object.
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Study #8 - The Moving Toy
Young children are faced with the challenging task of keeping track of objects in their environment as they move, change appearance, or disappear. For instance, a toddler may remember that his ball rolled to the other side of the room, so he must now go there, if he wants to play with it.
By the age of six months, infants are also quite good at remembering where they saw something, even if that object moves from its original place. This ability is called spatial indexing. As in the previous study, we believe that an additional sensory cue, sound, can assist infants in remembering an object’s new location. For instance, a child may watch his parent carry a musical toy across a room. If the child wants to play with the toy, he will likely note its location in the parent’s hand. He may also realize there is a sound associated with the toy. Additionally, his gaze will likely follow the parent across the room as the toy is carried to its new location. We wanted to understand whether children bind the sound of the music with the visual of the toy, and use this information to look for the toy in its new location, even if the toy disappears from sight. In other words, would the child look at the parent’s hands if he heard the sound of the toy, but didn’t see the toy?
We explored this question with three different studies. In the first study, 3 and 6 month olds watched a scenario where in a box on the top side of the screen a teddy bear was paired with the sound, ‘boing-boing’ and in a box on the bottom side of the screen a rattle was always paired with the same sound, ‘brrr-brrr’. The babies watched these pairings for about 30 seconds until we felt they may have connected the visuals with their respective sounds. We then rotated the boxes and played the ‘brrr-brrr’ sound but did not show a visual, and checked to see if the child looked to the box where he had last seen the rattle. We then did the same test with the second object. We observed that 3 months olds were not able to follow the boxes to their new location and connect an object with a sound. However, 6 month olds were very good at being able to track the object to its new location.
In the second study, we were interested in what would happen if we made the visual stimuli more complicated. Thus, we kept the location and the sounds the same, but changed the visual stimuli that appeared with the sound. For instance, the top box always had a ‘boing-boing’ sound associated with it, but this sound was paired with a kitten, then a rattle, and then a teddy bear. And the bottom box always had the ‘brrr-brrr’ sound, but this was also paired with different visuals. Six and 10 month olds participated in this study and we learned that although 6 month olds were adept at tracking objects to their new location when one object was consistently paired with one sound, they were not able to perform this type of tracking when watching the more visually complicated stimuli. However, 10 month olds did not have trouble with this new level of difficulty and consistently looked to the correct location.
Finally, in the third study we wondered what would happen if again we made the visuals more complicated, by keeping the picture the same regardless of the sound. For instance, the top box and the bottom box would still make their respective sounds, but the two sounds would always be paired with the same picture. Again, we tested 6 and 10 month olds in this study and as in our second study, we saw that 6 month olds were not able to track the objects to their new location with this more complicated visual stimuli, but 10 month olds, similar to the study above, we able to correctly follow the sound to the new location.
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Study #9 - A Genetic Marker for Depression in Mothers and Their Children
In this ongoing research conducted with mothers and their children aged 5-7.5 months, we are looking for the presence of a gene called the seratonin transmitter gene. Prior studies indicate that people with certain versions of this gene are more likely to develop depression. We wondered how the mother and child would be affected if one or both individuals were carriers of this gene
A saliva sample was obtained from both mother and child in our lab to test for the seratonin transmitter gene. The mother then completed a questionnaire assessing for symptoms of depression during the past six months. Next, the child sat on his mother’s lap and watched a series of happy and sad faces appear on a screen. We recorded the time the child spent looking at the sad faces versus the happy faces.
Our hypotheses is that the child will likely spend more time looking at the sad faces if the parent and child meet any of the following sets of criteria: 1) both the child and parent test positive for the seratonin transporter gene, 2) the parent tests positive but the child is negative, or 3) the parent tests negative but the child tests positive. We believe the child will spend more time looking at these sad faces because he is more familiar with this type of affect versus the child who falls into the fourth category in which neither the parent nor child test positive for the gene.
As this study is ongoing, we do not yet have results.
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Study #10 - The Whole Cookie Versus the Broken Cookie
If a child chews on a whole cookie, which is then broken into little pieces, he may make different conclusions about the state of the cookie. He may assume that although the visual appearance of the cookie has changed, the other properties such as taste, texture and smell will remain the same. Alternatively, he may assume that because the cookie no longer looks as it originally did, the smaller pieces are no longer connected to the whole in any way. Understanding children’s assumptions may help us understand their view of the world.
In this study, eight month olds sat on their parent’s lap in a dark room and watched a screen that contained two circles at the top. In the circle on the left, the child saw a cat repeatedly appear and disappear. When the cat appeared, it moved up and down to a specific sound (“boing, boing”). In the circle on the right, the child saw a rattle repeatedly appear and disappear. When the rattle appeared, it moved from right to left to its own sound (“ding, ding, ding”). After a few minutes, the circles went blank and fell to the bottom of the screen. While falling, the circle on the left remained whole – like a cookie that has not been broken. However, the circle on the right divided into two - like a broken cookie. We then played the “boing, boing” noise that went with the circle on the left and theorized that the children would look only at the left circle, aware that this sound was only attached to this circle. We then played the “ding, ding” sound and were curious to see that the children did. Our hypothesis was that if the child understood that the original circle that divided still maintained its original properties, the child would look back and forth between the two circles on the right, knowing that the sound was associated with both circles. However, if the child appeared confused about where to look, this might indicate that she was not certain of the properties of these two new circles.
We are still running this study and are anticipating having results soon.
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Study #11 - Where's the Toy?
Adults often find that it hard to inhibit certain actions, although they know otherwise. For instance, on the first day of a new job, you may find yourself driving in the direction of your old office, even though you are well aware of the fact that you should be driving to your new office. Children and babies have the same difficulty in inhibiting certain actions.
This study has two parts. In the first part, babies aged 9 months old sat on their parent’s lap across from a researcher. There was a table between the child and the researcher, and there were two wells in the table – one to the right and the other to the left of the infant. The researcher showed the children a brightly colored toy, hid it in the well on the right, and then immediately put covers over both wells. The researcher counted to three, then let the child search for the toy. Most children look in the well where the toy is hidden. The researcher repeated this hiding game a second time, hiding it in the well on the right. Again, most children looked in the right-sided well where the toy was hidden. The researcher repeated the hiding game a third time, but this time she switched the hiding location to the well on the left. Interestingly, even after seeing the researcher hide the toy in its new location, nine month olds continue to search for the toy in its original hiding position in the well on the right. Based on these results, we asked ourselves whether these nine month old were actually aware of the correct location after it changed, but were somehow unable to physically act on this knowledge.
For the second part of the study, nine and six month olds came in to our lab. This time, instead of manually searching for the hidden toy, the infants watched a screen on which a toy was hidden in a bucket on the right side of the screen. Once the toy disappeared, the child was momentarily distracted by an object that appeared in the middle of the screen. Then, the child was free to look anywhere on the screen. As with the manual study, both six and nine month olds looked to the correct bucket on the right side for the first two trials. However, when the hiding place was switched to the left bucket for the third trial, something interesting happened. Both groups of children spent a lot of time looking back and forth between the two buckets. Although they ultimately focused on the incorrect bucket, this pattern of back and forth looking may indicate that in fact these children do understand that the hidden toy is in a new location, but as with the manual search, they cannot completely overcome their desire to return to the original hiding place.
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Study #12 - Do Babies Understand Quantity?
Can babies tell the difference between numerical quantities of 2 and 3? What about 7 and 8? How precise is quantity in young infants? As adults, we are able to distinguish between 5 and 6 dots, or 6 and 7 beeps, but once quantities differ by a 7:8 ratio, it becomes very hard for us to tell two things apart without counting (e.g., 7 vs. 8 cheerios). In the present work, we wanted to use a training method to see how precise different quantities are in young infants. In our studies, we trained infants to look to one side of the screen after hearing 2 beeps (or seeing a picture of 2 dots and to the other side after hearing 8 beeps (or seeing 8 dots). We then hoped to discover how they would generalize intermediate numbers of beeps or dots (i.e., 3, 4, 5, and 6), imagining this would be an indication of, for example, how similar 2 and 3 might sound/look, or 6 and 8. What we discovered instead is that training infants to associate 2 beeps or 2 dots with a reward movie on one side of the screen and 8 beeps or 8 dots with a reward movie on the other side of the screen is a very difficult task!
In one set of studies, 6- and 10-month old infants showed that they could remember the side of the screen where they were rewarded for 2 beeps/dots, but did not make an association between 8 beeps/dots and the other side of the screen. A second set of slightly altered studies found the opposite result: now infants could remember the location of a reward following 8 beeps/dots, but could not do the same for 2! We are currently running a set of follow-up studies to see whether we can train these infants to remember two reward associations when we use shapes instead of number (e.g., when they see a yellow square, they are rewarded on the left, and when they see a yellow circle, they are rewarded on the right). This training method which we are trying to perfect has the potential to tell us a lot about how babies categorize their environment, and not just categories of number and quantity (e.g., Do 4 beeps sound more similar to 2 beeps or to 8 beeps?), but also categories of size, shape, color and so on.
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Study #1 - Transitional Learning
The Card Sort game is a well known task in which two through five year olds are asked to sort six cards according to one dimension (shape or color), and then sort six more cards by a second dimension, (the opposite – color or shape). The children sorted these cards into boxes with conflicting dimensions. For instance, when sorting a green flower, the child had the choice of a box with a green sailboat or a box with a yellow flower. The game is designed to assess children’s ability to switch between rules.
As expected, almost all of the children were able to correctly sort the first six cards regardless of whether they were asked to sort by color or shape. However, once the rule was switched and they were asked to sort using the opposite dimension, the younger children had trouble inhibiting their desire to use the first rule they were taught, although they clearly understood the new rule.
Past research on the Card Sort task has shown that different training methods may help children learn to successfully pass the Card Sort task when they might otherwise not be able to do so. This study was designed to assess various training methods and investigate whether children's improved performance would carry over to a new Card Sort task with different cards and boxes.
Children played the Card Sort game with one of four training variations including having children watch a video of another child sorting correctly, telling the children whether or not they were sorting correctly, having the children label the cards by their shape or color before sorting them, and no training at all.
We found that children who labeled the cards on their own before sorting them performed significantly better in the Card Sort game, and our findings suggest that this training condition was the most effective way to teach 3-year-olds how to pass the Card Sort task. We posit that children in this condition learned a strategy for completing the task and were able to refocus their attention to the relevant sorting dimensions.
We are currently testing more children in this Card Sort task to confirm our initial findings, as well as designing another study to further investigate these training methods.
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Study #2 - Influencing Children’s Actions
In this study we were interested in whether we could influence a child’s performance on a certain game by possibly speeding them up, slowing them down or keeping them at a neutral pace. The children were all taught to play the Day-Night Stroop Card game in which they learns to say ‘day’ when they see a card with a moon on it and to say ‘night’ when they see a card with a sun on it. The children are shown 18 randomly organized sun and moon cards and asked to respond with the word they were taught for each card.
Historically, 3 and 4 year olds who have been tested on this task have trouble stating the correct word, and often say ‘day’ when they see the sun and ‘night’ when they see the moon. We were interested in whether this outcome could be changed if we initially ‘primed’ children by reading them one of two stories - a story about a fast cheeta or a slow turtle. The stories were all read at the same pace with the same tone. The only difference was the description used in describing the speed of the adventures of the two animals. The children were randomly assigned to be read one of the two books. Then each child played the Day-Night card game.
Interestingly, the children who were read the story of the fast cheeta played the Day-Night card game more quickly and had many incorrect responses. Conversely, the children in the group that heard the story about the slow turtle played the card game more slowly and made fewer mistakes.
We conducted a second study in which we read the children a story about a wombat who did things at an average speed. The story was read either quickly or slowly to the children. Again, the children played the Day-Night card game and we saw that children who heard the story read quickly performed worse on the card game than the children who heard the story read more slowly. Thus, we concluded that it is not the contents of the story that affected the child, but rather the speed at which the story was read.
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Study #3 - Mice or Mouses?
How do children learn that the plural of mouse is ‘mice’ and not ‘mouses’? When children first learn a language they are taught that adding an ‘s’ makes nouns plural. Thus, their tendency is to apply this rule to all words, such that ‘man’ becomes ‘mans,’ even though they have heard and can reproduce the correct plural, such as ‘men.’ One explanation for this tendency to ‘over-regularize’ is that children in the early stage of learning, whether it’s a language or a game (as described in the ‘Transitional Learning’ study above), have trouble overcoming their desire to always use the first rule they have learned. In other words, children cannot inhibit their desire to say ‘tooths’, even thought they know that ‘teeth’ is correct. We wondered whether we could affect this strong desire to put ‘s’ on the end of all plural words by affecting a child’s inhibitory control.
In this study, we first asked each child to identify a series of pictures of regular, singular and plural nouns (ex. hat and hats) and irregular, singular and plural nouns (ex. child and children). The child then participated in a ‘Delay of Gratification’ task in which we told the child that if he waited patiently by himself for 12 minutes, we would give him two cookies, but if he rang the bell and called us back into the room before 12 minutes were up, he would only get one cookie. Following this ‘Delay of Gratification’ task, we again asked the child to identify the same series of regular and irregular plural nouns.
In analyzing the data, we divided the children into two groups; those who exhibited no stress while waiting for the cookie and those who demonstrated stress while waiting for the cookie. The results show what the children who were more stressed and possibly working harder to inhibit their desire to take the single cookie got more irregular noun plurals wrong during the post-test than the pre-test. Conversely, the children who demonstrated minimal stress, which we interpreted as less of a need to inhibit their desire to take the cookie, actually improved in the number of irregular plurals they correctly identified in the post-test.
These results indicate the inhibitory control appears to be a necessary piece of language production. It is what seems to allow children to ultimately overcome their desire to over-regularize words, such that ‘mouse’ will ultimately become ‘mice’.
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Study #4 - Understanding Someone Else’s Perspective
Children often do not understand that their perspective is different from others’. For instance, a young child might hold up a picture for a parent to see with the picture facing toward him or her, not toward the parent. This ability to understand another’s perspective does not appear to develop until a child is about 4 years old.
A task often used to determine whether a child understands someone else’s perspective is one in which the experimenter shows a child the following scenario: Tommy’s hides his ball under the table, but while he is outside, his mother moves the ball from under the table to the closet. Tommy then comes back inside and the child is then asked where Tommy will look for his ball. Most 4 year olds understand that although they know the ball’s new location, Tommy does not, and thus he will look for it under the table. However, 3 year old children do not yet understand that they have information Tommy does not have, so they believe Tommy will look for his ball in the closet.
In reviewing these studies, we wondered whether 3 year olds’ inability to correctly identify where Tommy looks for his ball was also affected by their inability to remember where the ball was originally hidden. Thus, we designed a study in which the child was shown the above scenario, but this time the child was given a sticker to place on top of the table where Tommy had hidden his ball. Again, Tommy’s mother switched the location of the ball and when Tommy returned from playing outside the child was asked where Tommy would look for his ball.
Even with the marker securely attached to the table, 3 year olds still stated that Tommy would look for his ball in the closet. This result made us then question whether children were able to use stickers as a memory aid. Thus, we conducted a second study in which children where asked to hide five objects in a small scale drawing of a room and then put a sticker on the hiding place of one object. About 10 minutes later we asked the child to find the object that was hidden in the place marked with the sticker. We compared these results to a second group who also hid five objects, but who did not use a sticker to identify where one of the objects was hidden. In this study, a significantly higher number of children where able to find the hidden object that was marked with the sticker.
These results indicate that 3 year olds are able to use markers such as stickers as a memory aid, but they are not able to use these markers to help them in the perspective taking task, which leads us to believe that they are answering the perspective taking task incorrectly not because of lack of memory, but because they truly do not yet understand others’ perspectives.
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Study #5 - How Children Learn to Interact With Objects
When children learn a new word, they do not usually connect it with an object that they already know by another name. For example, if a child knows the word ‘apple’, sees an apple and a candle (a word she does not know) in front of her, and then hears the word ‘fruit’ (a word she also does not know), the child will most likely to think the candle is called ‘fruit’. The child will not think that the apple has more than one name. Children are averse to ‘duplicate labeling.’ We wondered if this type of aversion also existed when children were shown new patterns of behavior.
In this study of 18 month olds, the child sees a researcher put a hat on her head, since the child is probably familiar with this behavior, she is likely to closely imitate the researcher’s actions when handed the hat. However, if the researcher later puts her elbow in the hat (an action with which the child is not familiar) she is not likely to imitate this motion, because as with words, she will not likely believe that a hat has more than one use. However, if the child is later shown an oddly shaped round object, with which she is not familiar and the researcher puts this on her head. The child is likely to think that this is an appropriate action for the unknown object and will likely imitate the researcher’s movements. However, because the child is not familiar with the object, she may not imitate the movements as faithfully as she would if she were familiar with the object and the action. This is similar to the child connecting the word he doesn’t know, ‘fruit’, with the object he doesn’t know, ‘candle’.
Our hypothesis held true. Eighteen month olds most faithfully imitated the researcher when they were interacting with an object and performing an action with which they were familiar, such as putting a hat of their heads. They were moderately faithful to the researcher’s motions when the object was unknown, such as putting an oddly shaped round object on their heads. And they were least faithful to the researcher’s actions when they were familiar with the object, but it was used in an unfamiliar way, such as putting an elbow into the hat.
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Study #6 - Imagine This...
How well do children understand that the things they imagine aren't real? Do children really think there is a monster under the bed? Or are they simply unable to not express that behavior? This study asks children to imagine positive, negative, and neutral objects in empty boxes, and then asks whether children will then have preferences about which box they open first. Will children prefer to open the positive box first, even though they know the box is empty?
3 Year Olds:
We were interested in what skills underly the ability to engage in imaginative acts, and we hypothesized that the ability to inhibit what the information the real-world is constantly providing might be an important first step. To test this we asked 3 year olds to play 2 games. One was a game where they had to switch between pretending to put a coin in a bucket and really putting a coin in a bucket. The
second was a card sorting task that involved sorting cards by two different rules having to do with shape or color. Children were first asked to sort card by, for instance, color, and then asked to sort card by shape. In order to successfully sort by shape, the children must inhibit the first rule. Many 3 year olds have a lot of difficulty making this change, and they persist in following the first rule, even though they can tell you the second rule (see Card Sort for research looking at how to help kids with this task). We were interested in whether children who have difficultly passing the card-sort task would have difficulty switching between doing something for real and doing it for just pretend. This was exactly what we found, children who had difficulty with the card sort task were more likely to have difficulty switching between pretending to do something and really doing it.
4 and 5 Year Olds
Between the ages of 4 and 8 children do a lot of playing, whether it's with toys such as dolls, trucks, games, etc. or with imaginary figures. Researchers have debated whether this behavior is unique to this age group or if adults display related behaviors (is going to the movies a grown up version of playing with toys?). Some researchers believe that young children don't always fully understand the distinction between presence and reality and that is why they have imaginary friends and believe in monsters under the bed. To test this theory they asked 5 year olds to imagine different things in empty boxes--a present, a spider, and a cup. While the 5yos all admitted that the boxes were empty, they preferentially opened the boxes present-cup-spider, the pattern you would expect if the boxes really contained these objects. This pattern, Bourchier and Davis (2002) have argued, is because the 5 year olds become confused about whether the objects are really in the boxes. We were interested in the developmental trajectory of this pattern of behavior and so we tested 4 year olds, 5 year olds, and Stanford undergraduates. What we found is that 4 year olds open the boxes based on how the experimenter interacted with the boxes (i.e. right to left), while 5 year olds again opened the boxes based on what we imagined was inside them. This might lead one to conclude that 4 year olds understand the presence-reality distinction and 5 year olds do not, however, Stanford undergraduates behaved in a manner identical to 5 year olds. As we can be certain that the undergrads were not confused about that task, we can no longer conclude
that 5 year olds don't understand the difference between pretense and reality. Instead, it appears that the ability to imagine things may increase between the ages of 4 and 5, and that once you have sufficient
imagination capabilities, it's simply sensible to open the boxes in that manner.
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