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Will to win may form at about four years

Aug. 18, 2013
Courtesy of the University of Warwick
and World Science staff

Chil­dren don’t un­der­stand com­pet­i­tive be­hav­ior un­til around age four, new re­search sug­gests—and that com­pre­hen­sion is linked to a more de­vel­oped grasp of oth­er peo­ple’s per­spec­tives.

Re­search­ers from the Uni­vers­ity of War­wick in the U.K. and Uni­vers­ity of Salz­burg in Aus­tria set up a game for 71 chil­dren aged three to five. They each had a ver­ti­cal stand and were told they had to throw a die, then pick up a cor­re­spond­ing num­ber of beads and put them on their stand. They could get these beads from ei­ther from a cen­tral bas­ket or from oth­er play­ers’ stands.

The ob­jec­tive was to be the first to fill their stand with beads.

The sci­en­tists wanted to see if the chil­dren would take beads from the bas­ket or “poach” them from oth­er play­er­s—a more com­pet­i­tive ap­proach that may show an un­der­standing that the play­ers have dif­fer­ent, and con­flict­ing, goals.

Chil­dren at about four and up poached more, they found. Some of the young­er chil­dren did­n’t even poach back at play­ers who had poached them, sug­gest­ing, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors said, they don’t get what com­pe­ti­tion is.

These non-poachers, the sci­en­tists added, were very of­ten the same young chil­dren who failed at a “false be­lief task,” de­signed to test their un­der­standing of oth­ers’ per­spec­tives. The task meas­ures the abil­ity to real­ize that what some­one in­ten­tion­ally does de­pends on their own view of a situa­t­ion, in­clud­ing pos­sibly false be­liefs.

“In the clas­si­cal ‘false be­lief task’, chil­dren watch a boy put some choc­o­late in a draw­er and go off to play,” ex­plained re­searcher Jo­han­nes Roessler of the Uni­vers­ity of War­wick. “Some­one comes along and moves the choc­o­late to the cup­board. The ex­pe­ri­menter then asks chil­dren where the boy will go to re­trieve his choc­o­late. Chil­dren un­der the age of four tend to pre­dict that he will go straight to the cup­board, be­cause that is where the choc­o­late now is—e­ven though the boy had no means of know­ing this!

“Older chil­dren tend to pre­dict that he will go to the draw­er, which is the cor­rect an­swer,” he went on. “Thus young­er chil­dren seem to lack a de­vel­oped un­der­standing that peo­ple’s in­ten­tion­al ac­tions re­flect their per­spec­tive” on how best to reach their goals.

“The ‘four years of age’ rule is­n’t hard and fast,” he added. “What’s im­por­tant is not the ab­so­lute age… but the fact that those who do not un­der­stand how in­ten­tion­al ac­tion can be in­formed by false be­liefs al­so tend to strug­gle with the idea of com­pe­ti­tion.”

The find­ings are to be pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Ex­pe­ri­men­tal Psy­chol­o­gy and are also on­line here.


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Children don’t understand competitive behavior until around age four, new research suggests—and that comprehension is linked to a more developed grasp of other people’s perspectives. Researchers from the University of Warwick in the U.K. and University of Salzburg in Austria set up a game for 71 children aged three to five. They each had a vertical stand and were told they had to throw a die, then pick up a corresponding number of beads and put them on their stand. They could get these beads from either from a central basket or from other players’ stands. The objective was to be the first to fill their stand with beads. The scientists wanted to see if the children would take beads from the basket or “poach” them from other players—a more competitive approach that may show an understanding that the players have different, and conflicting, goals. Children at about four and up poached more, they found. Some of the younger children didn’t even poach back at players who had poached them, suggesting, the investigators said, an inability to grasp the notion of competition. These non-poachers, the scientists added, were very often the same young children who failed at a “false belief task,” designed to test their understanding of others’ perspectives. The task measures the ability to realize that what someone intentionally does depends on their own view of a situation, including possibly false beliefs. “In the classical ‘false belief task’, children watch a boy put some chocolate in a drawer and go off to play,” explained researcher Johannes Roessler of the University of Warwick. “Someone comes along and moves the chocolate to the cupboard. The experimenter then asks children where the boy will go to retrieve his chocolate. Children under the age of four tend to predict that he will go straight to the cupboard, because that is where the chocolate now is—even though the boy had no means of knowing this! “Older children tend to predict that he will go to the drawer, which is the correct answer,” he went on. “Thus younger children seem to lack a developed understanding that people’s intentional actions reflect their perspective” on how best to reach their goals. “The ‘four years of age’ rule isn’t hard and fast,” he added. “What’s important is not the absolute age… but the fact that those who do not understand how intentional action can be informed by false beliefs also tend to struggle with the idea of competition.” The findings are to be published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.