Children have a secret power that helps them avoid a “learning trap” that adults can sometimes fall into: children just can’t focus their attention.
A new study used eye-tracking technology to show that children’s attention wandered across a computer screen as they tried to complete a task — even when adults quickly discovered they could do the task more efficiently by focusing on certain objects. to concentrate.
But that tendency to have a wandering eye helped 4- and 5-year-olds when the task changed unexpectedly — and they noticed important things on the screen that adults weren’t paying attention to.
“Adults’ ability to focus their attention is usually very helpful in everyday life,” said Vladimir Sloutskystudy co-author and professor psychology at Ohio State University.
“But sometimes it helps to look at the world more as a child and notice things that may not seem so important or relevant at the time.”
Sloutsky conducted the study with Nathaniel Blanco, a postdoctoral researcher, and Brandon Turner, a professor, both in psychology at Ohio State. The study was recently published online in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.
The study involved 30 4- and 5-year-old children and 38 adults who participated in a lab, where they were fitted with eye trackers that could see where they looked on a computer screen.
They were then shown colorful images of creatures with seven recognizable features, including a head, tail and antennae.
The participants were told that there were two types of creatures, called Flurps and Jalets, and that they had to figure out which were which.
One characteristic was always different in the two types of creatures – for example, the Jalets can have a blue tail and the Flurps an orange tail. In addition, the children and adults were told that most (but not all) Flurps had some type of characteristic, such as pink antennae.
One of the characteristics was never mentioned in the instructions, and it did not differ between the types of creatures. This was what the researchers called the “irrelevant feature.”
After the training, participants were shown a series of images of the creatures on the computer screen and were asked to indicate which type of creature each was.
During the first part of the experiment, adults quickly learned which characteristic always determined whether the creature was a Flurp or Jalet, and the eye tracker showed that they then focused almost all of their attention on that characteristic.
Kids learned more slowly which trait was most important to determine which creature was which creature — and the eye tracker showed they kept looking at all of the two creatures’ traits, even the ones that weren’t relevant.
“The kids weren’t as efficient as adults at fast learning,” Sloutsky said. “They kept looking around even when they didn’t have to.”
But halfway through the experiment, the researchers made an unannounced switch: The irrelevant trait—the body part that previously had no bearing on what kind of creature it was—became the feature that would determine whether it was a Flurp or a Jalet. This function, which was the same for both creatures before the switch, was now different for each.
After the switch, the adults were more unaware of the importance of the new position than the children. Instead, they relied on the previously learned minor functions.
Children, on the other hand, had paid attention to everything, which made it easier for them to notice that the rules had changed.
“The adults suffered from learned inattention,” Sloutsky said. “They didn’t pay attention to features that weren’t important during the first part of the experiment, so they missed when those features did become important.”
Sloutsky said the brains of 4- and 5-year-olds aren’t mature enough to draw attention to the way adults do. That fact can help them learn more as they explore the world.
And adults certainly have the ability to distribute their attention widely as the children in this study did — but they often choose selective attention because it’s helpful in achieving efficiency, he said.
The lesson for adults, though, is to realize that selective attention, while increasing the efficiency of learning and performance, can also lead to a learning trap in some situations, Sloutsky said.
“If you know something very well or a solution to a problem is obvious, it can help to broaden your focus, to look for clues that may seem irrelevant at first — to think like a child again.”
The study was supported by grants from the National Health Institutes.
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