Researchers found that adults were very good at remembering information they were told to focus on, and ignoring the rest. In contrast, 4- to 5-year-olds tended to pay attention to all the information that was presented to them – even when they were told to focus on one particular item. That helped children to notice things that adults didn’t catch.
“We often think of children as deficient in many skills when compared to adults. But sometimes what seems like a deficiency can actually be an advantage,” said Vladimir Sloutsky, co-author of the study from the Ohio State University.
“That’s what we found in our study. Children are extremely curious and they tend to explore everything, which means their attention is spread out, even when they’re asked to focus.” The results help understand how education environments affect children’s learning, he said.
The first study involved 35 adults and 34 children who were 4 to 5 years old.
The participants were shown a computer screen with two shapes, with one shape overlaying the other in red and green colours. The participants were told to pay attention to a shape of the red. The shapes then disappeared briefly, and another screen appeared and the participants had to report whether the shapes in the new screen were the same as the previous screen.
Adults performed slightly better than children at noticing when the target shape changed, noticing it 94% of the time compared to 86 percent of the time for children.
“But the children were much better than adults at noticing when the non-target shape changed,” Sloutsky said. Children noticed that change 77% of the time, compared to 63% of the time for adults.
A second experiment involved the same participants who were shown drawings of artificial creatures with several different features. They might have an “X” on their body, or an “O”; they might have a lightning bolt on the end of their tail or a fluffy ball.
Participants were asked to find one feature, such as the “X” on the body among the “Os.” They weren’t told anything about the other features. Thus, their attention was attracted to “X” and “O”, but not to the other features. Both children and adults found the “X” well, with adults being somewhat more accurate than children.
But when those features appeared on creatures in later screens, there was a big difference in what participants remembered. For features they were asked to attend to (“X” and “O”), adults and children were identical in remembering, but children were substantially more accurate than adults (72% versus 59%) at remembering features that they were not asked to attend to, such as the creatures’ tails.
“The point is that children don’t focus their attention as well as adults, even if you ask them to,” Sloutsky said. “They end up noticing and remembering more.”
Sloutsky conducted the study with Daniel Plebanek, a graduate student in psychology at Ohio State and their results were just published in the journal Psychological Science.