Young children are motivated to explore, even if it means giving up guaranteed rewards, a new US study suggests.
Researchers found that when adults and children aged four or five played a game where certain choices earned them rewards, all quickly learned what would give them the biggest returns.
But while adults then used that knowledge to maximise their prizes, children usually continued exploring the other options, just to see if their value may have changed.
And their search was anything but random. The results showed they approached exploration systematically, to make sure they didn’t miss anything.
“Even though we knew that children like to run around and investigate things, we’re now learning that there is a lot of regularity to their behaviour,” says Ohio State University psychologist Vladimir Sloutsky, co-author of a paper in the journal Developmental Science.
Sloutsky and colleague Nathaniel Blanco conducted two related studies involving a game on a computer screen.
In the first, participants were shown four alien creatures, each of which, when clicked, could provide a set number of virtual sweets, which children could later swap for real stickers. The aim was to earn as much as possible over 100 trails.
Adults selected the creature they realised offered the most sweets 86% of the time, but children only 43%. And it wasn’t because they didn’t realise where the greatest reward was.
In a memory test after the study, 20 of 22 children correctly identified which creature delivered the most sweets.
In a second study, the value of three of the four choices was visible – only one was hidden. The hidden option was randomly determined in each trial, so it changed nearly every time, but the values of all four choices never changed.
Again, the adults chose the best option almost every time (94%), whereas for children it was only 40%.
Adults chose the hidden option 84% of the time when it was the highest-value option, but otherwise only 2%. Children chose it 40% of the time regardless.
“The majority of the children were attracted to the uncertainty of the hidden option. They wanted to explore that choice,” Sloutsky says.
Not all did. A few children acted much like adults, and the researchers suggest this reflects different levels of cognitive maturation in children.
But, they add, it appears that all children go through a phase where systematic exploration is one of their main goals. “Children’s seemingly erratic behaviour at this age appears to be largely moulded by a drive to stockpile information,” says Blanco.
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