Suppose you observe this unlikely scene: A warm-blooded six-year-old is offered a plateful of droopy steamed broccoli or a luscious chocolate cupcake, and he chooses the broccoli. 

This curious incident violates our collective expectations about children’s food preferences, our “Childhood Taste Theory,” if you will. According to CTT, chocolate cupcakes trump everything green or cruciferous. So Broccoli Boy’s behavior suggests that CTT needs to be seriously revised. 

Should you change your theory or stick to your guns?

There's a third option, especially if your curiosity has been piqued, and that's to seek additional information. After some detective work, you discover that Broccoli Boy’s mother, hoping to impress other alpha-moms with her offspring’s (seemingly) well-trained palate, has secretly promised the little guy that choosing broccoli will result in a shiny new toy. 

Now you have a way to preserve your Childhood Taste Theory in light of the curious observation. Children do prefer chocolate cupcakes to broccoli, as CTT claims. It’s just that in this case, Broccoli Boy chose broccoli to get the new toy.

This pattern of reasoning is sometimes referred to as “explaining away.” Before knowing about Broccoli Boy’s bribe, the natural way to explain his food choice would violate CTT. But the bribe provides an alternative explanation that’s consistent with CTT. Explaining away is one strategy for preserving beliefs (in this case CTT) in light of anomalous observations (in this case Broccoli Boy’s food choice).

This may sound pretty sophisticated, but a new paper published in Cognitive Psychology finds that children as young as 6-year-old Broccoli Boy can carry out this kind of reasoning.

To test this idea, researchers Bonawitz, Schijndel, Friel, and Schulz relied on children’s pre-existing “theories” concerning balance. Some 6- to 7-year-olds believe that blocks will balance in their geometric centers – call them “Center Theorists” – while others (correctly) believe that blocks will balance at their centers of mass – call them “Mass Theorists.”

Images of balanced blocks

Image from Bonawitz et al. (2012)

For a Center Theorist, seeing a block balanced like that on the right would be pretty surprising (like a child choosing broccoli over cupcakes). For a Mass Theorist, seeing a block balanced like that on the left would be pretty surprising.

Bonawitz and her collaborators first classified children as either Center Theorists or Mass Theorists based on how they tried to balance blocks, and then showed each a block that balanced in a way that was either surprising or unsurprising according to his or her own theory. So, for example, some Center Theorists saw a block balanced like that on the left (unsurprising) and others like that on the right (surprising).

How did the researchers pull this off? With magnets, of course. Every block balanced the way it did because there was a magnet in the block and a magnet in the stand. The position of the magnet determined whether a block balanced at its geometric center or its center of mass. (Clever, no?)

After observing a surprisingly or unsurprisingly balanced block, the children were allowed to play, and here’s where the authors’ first major finding emerged: Children tended to play longer with the block when its balance was surprising in light of their theory. In other words, children’s spontaneous curiosity compelled them to explore aspects of their environment that challenged their current theories, and therefore had the potential to teach them something new. Curiosity paved the way for learning.

What happened when children discovered the magnets? Like the bribe in our first example, the magnet provided a way for children to hold on to their original theories of balance despite having observed a surprising block. And in fact, children did tend to "explain away" the block's balance by appealing to the magnet, but only when the block's balance was inconsistent with their original theory.

So what does this tell us about curiosity and learning?

On the one hand, children’s curiosity led them to spend more time playing with the surprising block, which maximized the potential for learning. On the other hand, children’s tendency to “explain away” observations when they were anomalous suggests some resistance to change.

Yet sometimes explaining away is the right thing to do. The Mass Theorists would have been wrong to abandon their theory of balance when faced with the surprisingly balanced block, since the magnet was responsible for a (seeming) violation of basic physics. It's the Center Theorists who would have done better abandoning their theory instead of appealing to the magnet. And in fact, when the researchers repeated the experiment without magnets (by using asymmetrically weighted blocks), they found that Center Theoriests were willing to revise their beliefs. 

The upshot: Deciding when to hold on to one’s current theories and when to revise them can be a challenging balancing act, but it looks like one that children accomplish pretty well, even without bribes. (Getting them to eat broccoli, on the other hand...)

Check out this recent post at Ulterior Motives for more on children's explanations and exploration. 

Recent Posts in Explananda

Is it Rational to Have a Child? Can Psychology Tell Us?

A new paper suggests that life-transforming decisions can't be made rationally.

Are You a Sucker For Math?

New research reveals a "nonsense math effect."

Can You Explain Your Moral Choices?

A clever new study reveals “choice blindness” when it comes to moral beliefs

Explaining Gender Differences

Is there a biological explanation for why girls like Barbie, and does it matter?

A Simple Lesson From Strep Throat

What strep throat and ear infections teach us about the nature of simplicity

Does Curiosity Guide Children's Learning?

Explaining "explaining away" and the process of revising beliefs.