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Why kids beat adults at figuring out gadgets

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Why kids beat adults at figuring out gadgets

Post by AlleyRose on Sun Apr 06, 2014 9:54 pm

Some kids are surprisingly good at figuring out unfamiliar gizmos and gadgets. But why is that?
A new study comparing preschoolers and grown-ups suggests an answer: Compared to adults, little kids have fewer assumptions about the way things are supposed to work. They are more willing to entertain hypotheses that sophisticated, rule-bound adults reject.
The experiments, conducted at U.C. Berkeley, were very cool. First, an instructor sat down with each volunteer and showed off her “blicketness machine,” a box that played music if you knew how to turn it on.
This required setting certain special objects on top of the box, objects called “blickets.”
What do blickets look like? That’s tricky. They can take many forms, and there is nothing about their appearance that gives them away.
The instructor showed each volunteer a bunch of ceramic shapes, shapes like disks, cubes, spheres, cones, stars, and more. Some of the shapes, she said, are blickets, and the goal of this game is to figure out which shapes are blickets, and which are just ordinary pieces of ceramic.
Next, the instructor led each a series of demonstrations. She would place a shape – sometimes two different shapes at once – on top of the machine to see if the machine played music. Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t. And like students playing the game of Clue, the volunteers were left to make logical inferences about how the machine worked.
For example, both kids and adults were presented with information like this:

It’s a bit complicated, isn’t it? It appears that none of the shapes worked by themselves. But when a triangle and square were combined, the machine played music.
Had the volunteers who’d seen these demonstrations inferred any general rules about how to run a blicketness machine? The researchers administered a little test to find out. They showed the volunteers a follow-up demonstration like this:

Then, for each shape shown, they asked the volunteers, “Do you think this is a blicket?”
Now it gets really interesting. Both adults and preschoolers were in strong agreement about the yellow star. That’s a blicket for sure. But they were divided on the other shapes. The kids were much more likely than the adults to say that they thought the heart and diamond were also blickets.
And here, the kids’ open-mindedness made more sense. The preschoolers seem to have noticed an important rule – that an object could be a perfectly good blicket and yet not turn the box on by itself. As a result, you shouldn’t assume that any of these shapes aren’t blickets. There isn’t enough information.
But the adults acted differently. They named the heart infrequently and the diamond even less. Compared to the kids, they seemed to dismiss these shapes. They didn’t seem to grasp the unusual, underlying rule that at least some blickets were effective only in pairs.
Is it possible we’re giving the kids too much credit? Maybe the kids were just more inclined to say everything is a blicket. But no, the researchers tested for this in other experiments, and it wasn’t the case.
Maybe the kids were just guessing randomly. But again, the pattern of answers across different experiments didn’t support the idea.
Possibly, the adults were more likely to feel they had to be certain when answering the question, “Do you think this is a blicket?” If so, their responses don’t seem so dumb. The adults were just being conservative. But it’s interesting to consider how adults behaved when given the opportunity to make the machine play music. Unlike the preschoolers, they rarely tried using more than one blicket at a time.
So this study may have uncovered an important difference in the way young children and adults learn, and the researchers think they know what it is. The adults, but not the kids, bring a bias to their problem-solving: They expect each cause to influence an outcome independently, without requiring coordination with another, second cause.
The assumption serves them well when it’s a valid one. In versions of this experiment where the machine could be explained without resorting to multiple causation, the adults performed as well as the children did. But of course complex causation is common in the real world. When it comes to coping with the new and unexpected, young children may have an advantage.

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