Two sides to learning to think ahead

Today, I’m celebrating my latest article reaching the final stage of publication. Time to see how well I do explaining my own research for a broad audience.

My mother once told me that when my sister and I were children, she didn’t envy the parents with the adorable tiny newborns, or the parents with teenagers who were potty trained and somewhat self-sufficient. Her mantra was “It doesn’t get better, it just gets different.” First you trade happy gurgles and endless dirty diapers for cute pronunciations of “pasketti” and temper tantrums; then the childish lisp and temper tantrums will be swapped out for independence and sullen attitudes. Years later, that same message is at the center of my own research: each development in how children think has its upside…and its downside.

Young children are not known for their ability to think ahead, leading to fervent protestation of “But I didn’t know taking the faucet off the sink would flood the kitchen!”and dirty socks left on the living room floor after twelve reminders to pick them up (I am no longer speaking from experience. I think.) The good news is that preschoolers who never bother to think ahead will grow into 8-year-olds and adults who at least can, when they want to. The bad news is that when this newfound ability to think ahead is appearing, children may actually be doing worse at some things.

When children think ahead, or proactively, they gain some important new skills. One of them is that they are much more on their toes when they’ve been instructed to remember something. This might ultimately manifest in standing by the front door with all of their school supplies in hand; it can start out as simple as being faster to identify shapes in a memory game.

Imagine that you see a triangle in a box. Your job is to remember that triangle, so that 16 seconds later, when you see three shapes, you’ll be able to pick out the triangle right away as the one you just saw. What would you do during those 16 seconds?

If you’re an adult, you probably say “triangle, triangle, triangle” in your head the entire time, to help you remember. That’s thinking proactively. Even six-year-olds can be proactive, and they’ll come up with creative ways of doing it: pushing thumbs and forefingers together in the shape of a triangle, for example, or tracing one on the desk in front of them. Other six-year-olds, though, will be reactive, not thinking about anything in particular for those 16 seconds, and waiting until they are prompted to remember to react and think back to what shape they had seen before. Having to think back like that will slow them down: they aren’t ready the moment the shapes appear, to point out the shape with their hands still forming it (yes, some of the kids really did that), so the take an extra second to retrieve the proper shape from the depths of their quarter-second-ago memory.

Would you be ready to press the triangle the moment it appeared? Or would you be slowed by  having to think back 16 seconds to which shape had been shown? Photo by K. Blackwell.

Would you be ready to press the triangle the moment it appeared? Or would you be slowed by having to think back 16 seconds to which shape had been shown? Photo by K. Blackwell.

And that is an advantage of developing that proactive thinking: those children are faster to pick out the correct shape. The think-back children do get the right shape in the end, but in a more complex task – with more difficult things to remember, or more choices to pick from – they might not just be slower, but also make more mistakes.

But, thinking ahead isn’t perfect. As I can attest from my time programming and debugging this task, even adults have to spend some mental effort remembering such a simple shape. It would take just one stray thought about something else I needed to be doing, and I would find myself staring a trio of pictures with no idea which one had been on the screen a few seconds before. And the world is a very distracting place to children; imagine the poor parent’s frustration when a usually think-ahead capable kid walks into Chuck E Cheese’s and seems to forget every instruction she has ever been given.

The downside of being hurt by distraction also plays out when children play the memory game. When we told them that while they waited for the picture they would have to tap on the table (so they couldn’t draw any shapes with their fingers) and count backwards from 10 or 20 (like a countdown!) the children who preferred to reactively think-back were hurt a little, but the children who preferred to proactively think-ahead were hurt a lot. They didn’t just lose their advantage and become as slow as the reactive children, they actually became slower. They may have lost time by trying to be proactive first, or they may have just been out of practice retrieving things reactively, or we may just have caused a catastrophic mess in their memories – the same way that a moment of distraction while juggling eggs is going to get every egg on the floor, not just one.

So perhaps the next time a parent stands with her head in her hands wondering at the folly of youth in failing to think ahead, she can console herself with the knowledge that this may just be the way kids needs to think to cope with the distracting world they live in. It would be a very small comfort if a child really had flooded the kitchen, I know. But it’s something.

Blackwell KA, & Munakata Y (2014). Costs and benefits linked to developments in cognitive control. Developmental Science, 17 (2), 203-11 PMID: 24329774


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