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2-min read

Adults, Take Note: Research Finds Children Notice More Things than Grown Ups

Four to five-year-olds, on the other hand, tended to pay attention to all the information that was presented to them , even when they were told to focus on one particular item.

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Updated:August 7, 2019, 3:26 PM IST
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Adults, Take Note: Research Finds Children Notice More Things than Grown Ups
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Compared to selective attention in adults, the tendency to not ignore anything gives children an edge in certain learning situations, new research has found.

In two studies, researchers found that adults were very good at remembering information they were told to focus on, and ignoring the rest.

Four to five-year-olds, on the other hand, 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 meant children were able to notice more things than adults.

“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 and professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.

Sloutsky conducted the study with Daniel Plebanek, a graduate student in psychology at Ohio State.

The first experiment involved 35 adults and 34 children, who were four to five-year-olds.

The participants were shown a computer screen with two shapes, with one shape overlaying the other. One of the shapes was red, the other green. The participants were told to pay attention to a shape of a particular color, like red.

The shapes then disappeared briefly, and another screen with shapes appeared. The participants had to report whether the shapes in the new screen were the same as in the previous screen.

In some cases, the shapes were exactly the same. In other cases, the target shape (the one participants were told to pay attention to) was different. But there were also instances where the non-target shape changed, even though it was not the one participants were told to notice.

Adults performed slightly better than children at noticing when the target shape changed, noticing it 94 per cent of the time compared to 86 per cent 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 percent of the time, compared to 63 percent of the time for adults.

“What we found is that children were paying attention to the shapes that they weren’t required to,” he said. “Adults, on the other hand, tended to focus only on what they were told was needed.”

In another experiment involving the same participants, drawings of artificial creatures with several different features were shown.

Participants were asked to find one feature, such as “X” on the body among “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 (i.e., “X” and “O”), adults and children were identical in remembering these features. But children were substantially more accurate than adults (72 percent versus 59 percent) at remembering features that they were not asked to attend to, such as the creatures’ tails.

“The ability to focus attention is what allows adults to sit in two-hour meetings and maintain long conversations, while ignoring distractions,” Sloutsky said.

“But young children’s use of distributed attention allows them to learn more in new and unfamiliar settings by taking in a lot of information.”

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