March 29, 2006
Pre-Schoolers Think Like Scientists

But the researchers do not explain what goes wrong later. Kids start out on the road to science and enlightenment.

Even preschoolers approach the world much like scientists: They are convinced that perplexing and unpredictable events can be explained, according to an MIT brain researcher's study in the April issue of Child Development.

The way kids play and explore suggests that children believe cause-and-effect relationships in the world are governed by fundamental laws rather than by mysterious forces, said Laura E. Schulz, assistant professor of cognitive science and co-author of the study "God Does Not Play Dice: Causal Determinism and Preschoolers' Causal Inferences."

"It's important to understand that kids are approaching the world with deep assumptions that affect their actions and their explanations and shape what they're able to learn next," Schulz said. "Kids' fundamental beliefs affect their learning. Their theoretical framework affects their understanding of evidence, just as it does for scientists."

Kids believe in cause and effect.

Schulz and colleague Jessica Sommerville of the University of Washington tested 144 preschoolers to look at whether children believe that causes always produce effects. If a child believes causes produce effects deterministically, then whenever causes appear to work only some of the time, children should think some necessary cause is missing or an inhibitory cause is present.

In one study, the experimenters showed children that a switch made a toy with a metal ring light up. Half the children saw the switch work all the time; half saw that the switch only lit the ring toy some of the time. The experimenters also showed the children that removing the ring stopped the toy from lighting up. The experimenters kept the switch, gave the toy to the children and asked the children to stop the toy from lighting up.

If the switch always worked, children removed the ring. If the switch only worked some of the time, children could have removed the ring but they didn't--they assumed that the experimenter had some additional sneaky way of stopping the effect. Children did something completely new: They picked up an object that had been hidden in the experimenter's hand (a squeezable keychain flashlight) and used that to try to stop the toy. That is, the children didn't just accept that the switch might work only some of the time. They looked for an explanation.

They also figured out that adults are crafty and tricky. I wonder how old they were when they figured that out.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 March 29 09:49 PM  Brain Development

James Bowery said at March 29, 2006 10:26 PM:

If we take seriously the idea that memes are mind viruses, it may in fact be the case that at some point in the development of the child's brain there is enough of a metabolism/apparatus there for mind viruses to infect them and disable their innate enlightened state.

We're pretty far from a true epidemiology of mind viruses but it seems plausible.

Doug said at March 29, 2006 11:15 PM:

Rousseau or, more exactly, his character "Jean-Jacques," has something to say on this issue in Rousseau's novel, the Emile. As I recall, Jean-Jacques opines that children decide at some point, on the basis of the evidence at hand, that their parents have an intention or will, and that their intention or will can be changed by pleading. They generalize from these opinions that there's a will or wills in everything, and they may come to think therefore that adverse events are the will of an adversary. From there, it's just a short step to attempting to plead with the adversary to change His mind, in much the same way that children plead with their parents to change their minds.

Kurt said at March 30, 2006 1:39 AM:

I think that this research is correct, because it mirrors my own childhood experiences. The only difference between me and most other people is that my thinking about causality never changed as I grew up. Also, I basically independently "discovered" libertarianism by purely imperical thinking when I was in high school. I had never heard of Ayn Rand or libertarianism when I came up with my ideas. It was later when I was explaining my ideas in college that someone told me that I sounded "just like Ayn Rand" and "like a libertarian". It was only then that I first heard about either person and concept.

It is for this reason I maintain that "libertarianism" is derivable imperically, unlike something like christianity or socialism, and thus, is objectively "true". I also believe that the kids who never stop thinking "imperically" as they grow up are the ones most likely to grow into libertarians as adults.

Further research is necessary to uncover exactly what the psychological process (is it biochemical?) that kids go through that causes them to stop thinking imperically and start buying into all of the crapola that passes as memes in the world today. Identifying this mechanism for the purposes of eliminating it would have a profound positive effect in the future development of humankind.

Further research is necessary.

Lono said at March 30, 2006 12:08 PM:

One of my fondest (and oldest) memories is that of being a Pre-Schooler at a Montessori day program.

The "administrator" brought me a mixture of both weak and powerful magnets over to my "study area" and suggested I explore their properties.

After spending a few hours with them, I felt I fully understood their nature, if not the full reason behind the forces they exhibited.

I also felt a surge of intellectual exhiliration - having mastered the use of their forces in a relatively short time frame.

I remember clearly thinking what a Golden Society mankind has - and I fanatsized about the vehicles which must likely employ these magnetic forces for transportation in the "Adult" world.

How severly dissapointed I was when - after years of attending public schools - I realized political and social conflicts were the main driving force for most of Human society.

Perhaps many people are like George Costanza of Seinfeld - exhibiting natural genuis until they have sex - and then the shiftless dullard emerges.

After all - what use does nature have for you after you have been "smart enough" to procreate?

However, it does seem that some of us, for whatever reason, do seem to retain that innate intellectual curiosity well into our adult life.

Rsilvetz said at March 30, 2006 2:55 PM:

Nothing like having to develop to seperate sets of rules either. Nature is not malicious, as opposed to the rule sets that one needs to develop regarding fellow humans. What a shock it must be when one concludes, subconsciously, that the greatest threat to oneself is not nature, but one's fellow "crafty and tricky" humans...

Bob Badour said at April 3, 2006 10:59 AM:

"Crafty and tricky" would be less a threat to us in the west if there were fewer "dull and self-serving" voting.

Jeffrey Gordon said at April 7, 2006 12:47 PM:

We think like scientists until we run the experiment that tells us that survival in human society is greatly facilitated by becoming allies with other people. One of the obstacles to forming alliances with other people is "truth." It is much easier to be an ally with someone if you don't contradict them and simply parrot what they say. Thus it is our very empirical thinking that leads us to abandon it in favor of social cohesion.

A similar line of reasoning might help explain resistance to evolutionary ideas. If denying evolution led to a culture with greater reproductive rates, then evolution will eventually select for denying itself.

I guess this could be generalized into a theory of self-reinforcing belief systems and modes of thought. Some systems of belief or types of thinking will not necessarily be self-sustaining and will eventulally vanish. Some systems might even actively reason themselves out of existence. It's kind of like the opposite of "I think therefore I am." Instead it's "I think it's best to stop thinking."

Bob Badour said at April 7, 2006 12:52 PM:

Jeffrey, are you thinking of the Shakers?

tung lov said at May 21, 2006 3:09 PM:

thats why america is so stupid right ? because showing stupidity,acting stupidly and apluading stupidity are the only way to fit in and get along...................

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