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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

How preschoolers outsmart college students

Child playing with a blicketness machine.
Credit: Image courtesy of University of California - Berkeley
In what should be no surprise to anyone, young children can be better learners than adults. What’s interesting is that one reason for this is that children are more open-minded in picking up connections. They’re more flexible in their thinking than adults are. Christopher Lucas from the University of Edinburgh and colleagues from the University of California, Berkeley explored this by letting children and college students play with a light-up toy box.

Preschoolers (age 4 and 5) and college students were presented with a ‘blicketness machine’, a box that lights up when certain combinations of clay shapes (‘blickets’) are placed upon it. After watching a demonstration, the participants then have to figure out what configuration of blickets made the machine light up. 

When the machine lit up after two objects were placed on it, participants could infer that those objects had a disjunctive relationship with each other (either A or B alone would have been sufficient) or a conjunctive relationship (both A and B were required).

Adults were much more likely to assume that the clay pieces operated independently. That is, they had a bias toward disjunctive relationships. This was true even when it ran contrary to the evidence presented. In contrast, the preschoolers were more readily able to switch to a conjunctive viewpoint.

Of course, no one is saying that small children are smarter than college students. However, young kids do seem to have more cognitive flexibility, especially when it comes to figuring out cause and effect.

Lucas, C., Bridgers, S., Griffiths, T., & Gopnik, A. (2014). When children are better (or at least more open-minded) learners than adults: Developmental differences in learning the forms of causal relationships Cognition, 131 (2), 284-299 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2013.12.010.