Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Young Children Use Physics, Not Previous Rewards, When Learning

Children as young as seven apply basic laws of physics to problem-solving, rather than learning from what has previously been rewarded, suggests new research from the University of Cambridge.

The findings of the study, based on the Aesop’s fable The Crow and the Pitcher, help solve a debate about whether children learning to use tools are genuinely learning about physical causation or are just driven by what action previously led to a treat.

Learning about causality — about the physical rules that govern the world around us — is a crucial part of our cognitive development. From our observations and the outcome of our own actions, we build an idea — a model — of which tools are functional for particular jobs and which are not.

However, the information we receive isn’t always as straightforward as it should be. Sometimes, outside influences mean that things that should work, don’t. Similarly, sometimes things that shouldn’t work, do. Dr. Lucy Cheke, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, says:

In this situation, explains Cheke, a learner concerned with the outcome (a “reward” learner) would learn that the inflatable hammer was the successful tool and opt to use it for later hammering.

However, a learner concerned with physical forces (a “functionality” learner) would learn that the metal hammer produced a percussive force, albeit in the wrong place, and that the inflatable hammer did not, and would therefore opt for the metal hammer.

Now, in a study published in the open access journal PLOS ONE, Dr. Cheke and colleagues investigated what kind of information children extract from situations where the relevant physical characteristics of a potential tool are observable, but often at odds with whether the use of that tool in practice achieved the desired goal.

The researchers presented children aged 4-11 with a task through which they must retrieve a floating token to earn sticker rewards. Each time, the children were presented with a container of water and a set of tools to use to raise the level.

This experiment is based on one of the most famous Aesop’s fables, where a thirsty crow drops stones into a pitcher to get to the water. In this test, some of the tools were “functional” and some “non-functional.”

Functional tools were those that, if dropped into a standard container, would sink, raising the water level and bringing the token within reach; non-functional tools were those that would not do so, for example because they floated.

However, sometimes the children used functional tools to attempt to raise the level in a leaking container — in this context, the water would never rise high enough to bring the token within reach, no matter how functional the tool used.

At other times, the children were successful in retrieving the reward despite using a non-functional tool; for example, when using a water container that self-fills through an inlet pipe, it doesn’t matter whether the tool is functional as the water is rising anyway.

After these learning sessions, the researchers presented the children with a “standard” water container and a series of choices between different tools.

From the pattern of these choices, the researchers could calculate what type of information was most influential on children’s decision-making: reward or function. Elsa Loissel, co-first author of the study explained:

“A child doesn’t have to know the precise rules of physics that allow a tool to work to have a feeling of whether or not it should work.

“So, we can look at whether a child’s decision making is guided by principles of physics without requiring them to explicitly understand the physics itself.”

Co-first author Dr. Cheke added:

Instead, the researchers showed that information about reward was never a reliable predictor of children’s choices. Instead, the influence of functionality information increased with age — by the age of seven, this was the dominant influence in their decision making.

Provided by: University of Cambridge [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

Like this article? Subscribe to our weekly email for more!     

Troy Oakes
Troy was born and raised in Australia and has always wanted to know why and how things work, which led him to his love for science. He is a professional photographer and enjoys taking pictures of Australia's beautiful landscapes. He is also a professional storm chaser where he currently lives in Hervey Bay, Australia.

Subscribe to our newsletter


Living by the Sea Could Make You Healthier and Happier

You may have thought about buying a house near the seashore so you could enjoy countless days of sunshine...

More Articles Like This