“The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming buzzing confusion”- William James
Most parents are all too familiar with the experience of asking their preschooler what they want for dinner, only to be frustrated that by the time dinner time arrives their child no longer wants the food they were craving only hours earlier. Research suggests this might happen because until around 5 years old, children have difficulty thinking about how they might feel even in the immediate future. Preschooler’s decisions for the future are also heavily influenced by what they want right now. However, it is possible that allowing children to satisfy their current desires might make it easier for them to make decisions for the future.
My honours thesis project investigated this idea in 4-year-old children. I showed children pairs of images and asked them to tell me which item they liked; in each pair, one item was something a child would typically like (e.g. a juice box) while the other was something an adult would typically like (e.g. coffee). I asked some children to tell me what they like right now and then I asked them what they might like when they are grown up. Other children were asked to tell me what they might like as a grown up before they told me what they like right now.
When 4-year-old children were asked to tell me what they might like best as a grown up first, they tended to choose the items an adult would prefer and the items a child would prefer roughly equally; they pretty much chose at random. However, children who were allowed to tell me what they liked now before they had to choose what they might like as a grown up, were much better at choosing the appropriate items, i.e. coffee, for their grown up selves.
We think that this order effect occurs because it is easier for children to tell us they might like coffee when they are a grown up if their current desire to tell us that they really like juice boxes has been satisfied.
If children are better at thinking about their future once current desires have been satisfied, we wondered if allowing children to physically interact with the items they desired might also make it easier to think about future preferences. To test this hypothesis, children in another group were allowed to play with all of the items that children typically prefer before they were asked about what they might like as a grown up.
Surprisingly, we found that the play session was beneficial for boys but detrimental for girls. Boys were better at telling us they might like coffee as a grown up after they drank a juice box, thus satisfying their desire for juice. On the other hand, girls were more likely to choose a juice box for their grown up selves after they had drank one.
We think that this may have happened because the play session was enough to fulfil boy’s desires, but not long enough to fulfil girl’s desires. The play session involved sitting down at a table interacting with items with a female experimenter. We know from previous research that girls prefer to play with girls, and boys prefer to play with boys. In addition, girls enjoy this type of quiet play more than boys. So perhaps boys got bored of the items quite quickly, while for girls the 15 minutes of play was just enough to remind them of how much they love juice boxes, Play-Doh, picture books, sticker books and Play School.
So what does this all mean for parents? Well, our research might suggest that if you want to know what your preschooler really wants to eat for dinner, try asking them what they want to eat right now first!
As the end of the Semester approaches we unfortunately have to say goodbye to some of the students that have been doing research at the Early Learning Project this year. I caught up with our Honours Student, Amelia, to find out about her thesis and what her plans are now that she has finished her degree.
Tell me about the research project you undertook for your thesis
For my thesis I was looking at future thinking in 4-year-olds, and how they understand that their preferences for objects mightchange in the future. In the experiment I showed 4-year-olds two pictures, one of them was something children generally like (e.g. apple juice) and the other something that adults generally likes (e.g. coffee). For each pair of pictures, we asked the child which they like now, and which they will like in the future. For some of the children we asked what they like now first, whereas other children were asked what they will like when they’re grown up first. We also wanted to test whether getting to play with the items that children generally like first, would help children be better able to inhibit their choices for those items when they were asked abuot what they might like in the future so half of the children got to drink apple juice and play with the child-preferable toys and the other half of children got to play with other things before we asked them about their preferences.
What did you find?
In general, all of the children who were asked their current preferences first were subsequently better at saying they might like adult-preferable things in the future in the second part of the experiment. I also found that including a play session did not affect the girls’ responses about their preferences, however, when the boys had a play session before being asked their preferences they were better at identifying that their preferences might change when they are grown up.
Why did you choose to research this topic?
I like kids, I have 7 younger brothers and sisters under the age of 10! So I knew I wanted to do developmental research for my thesis. I find future thinking really interesting and had previously read a paper by some psychologists who had performed a similar study, but I thought that there was a gap in the research for seeing in which circumstances the children’s ability to think about the future might change. I added the play session to the experiment to find out if the children’s future thinking improved after experiencing playing with the toys.
What was the biggest challenge for your research?
Recruiting 4-year-olds is very difficult compared to adults. Because I had chosen to do a developmental project it meant that I was still testing children until about 2 weeks before my thesis was due in! It was worth the effort though to be able to play with some very cute kids, although if I were to do the project again I would definitely try and stick to a specific time frame and not leave writing my thesis until the very last minute!
What are your plans now that you’ve finished?
This summer I’m going to Malaysia for my brother’s wedding which I am very excited about. It’s a traditional Indian wedding so it will go on for a few days! I also currently do applied behavioural analysis therapy with kids with autism. I might carry on to do a masters in a couple of years, or if not I’ll carry on with ABA therapy. For now I’m enjoying going to the beach and spending time with my friends and family.
Congratulations Amelia for completing your Honours degree and we would like to wish you the best of luck in the future.
I was immensely proud to watch our Ph.D. student Amy Datyner walk across the stage today in the Clancy Auditorium to receive her Ph.D. and Master of Psychology (Clinical) degrees. Amy joined the lab in 2012, already a year into her Masters program. Her research interests centre around empathy development in infants and preschoolers and during her Ph.D. she used tiny sensors to record the activity produced by muscles on the face while children were looking at pictures of different emotions (read more about this method here). She was particularly interested to see whether babies and young children automatically "mimic" facial expressions of emotion like we do as adults. Consistent with studies of adults, her results found that when infants and children looked at pictures of happy faces, the muscles in the cheek that would produce a smile contracted. Unexpectedly though, when infants and children looked at pictures of angry faces, she didn't see any activation of the muscles in the brow. Her results show that infants and children mimic some emotional expressions but not others, which has important implications for our understanding of how emotion sharing responses develop. Read more about Amy's work in our blog post here.
Congratulations Amy from all of us!
I am the Director of the Early Learning Project at UNSW. My research interests focus on learning, memory and emotion understanding development in infancy and early childhood
I am currently studying for my undergraduate Psychology degree at Cardiff University in the UK. I am working as a Research Assistant in the Early Learning Project as part of our placement program this year.
I have just finished my thesis for my honuors degree. My research focused on future thinking ability in preschoolers.