COLUMBUS, Ohio — Adults often tend to write young children off as bundles of excited energy absentmindedly storming through their surroundings. While kids can definitely be a handful to keep restrained and in good behavior, don’t make the mistake of believing they aren’t paying attention to what is happening around them. That’s the main finding of a new study recently conducted at Ohio State University, and researchers even go so far as to say that children as young as four or five can outperform adults in some learning situations.
According to the study’s authors, while adults are very good at paying attention to important details, children pay attention to everything.
To come to their conclusions, researchers gathered a group of adults and a group of 4-5 year-old children to take part in the study and complete a specific task. Initially, both groups were presented with seemingly superfluous information that appeared to be irrelevant, but actually turned out to be vital to the task they were asked to complete.
“Adults had a hard time readjusting because they didn’t learn the information they thought wouldn’t be important,” explains study co-author Vladimir Sloutsky in a release. “Children, on the other hand, recovered quickly to the new circumstances because they weren’t ignoring anything. I’m sure a lot of parents will recognize that tendency of children to notice everything, even when you wish they wouldn’t.”
The results of the study indicate that young children spread their attention out much more evenly, while adults tend to just ignore everything unless they deem it particularly important or interesting. Of course, this tendency for children to notice anything and everything is almost certainly linked to their natural hunger for new information and learning as they begin to understand the world around them.
“Distributing attention may be adaptive for young children. By being attentive to everything, they gather more information which helps them learn more,” clarifies Nathanial Blanco, another study co-author.
One of the tasks participants were asked to solve involved distinguishing between two different types of fictional creatures, “Flurps” and “Jalets,” based on images provided of their appearances. At first, both adults and children were told that certain characteristics, such as a blue tail or pink antennae, would serve as the primary distinguishing feature of each creature.
However, halfway through the task the researchers flipped the rules on the participants, and changed a different aspect of the creatures’ anatomies. When this switch was made, the adults struggled to pick up on the change because they hadn’t paid attention to anything about the fictional animals besides the areas specifically pointed out to them by the research team. Children on the other hand, picked up on the differences quickly.
The study’s authors say that adults should be able to spread their attention out just like children do, but most people just end up developing a tendency to become selective with their attention because that is more helpful on a day-to-day basis.
“It is clear that for optimal performance at most jobs, selective attention is necessary. But distributed attention might be useful when you’re learning something new and need to see everything that is going on,” Sloutsky comments.
The study is published in the scientific journal Developmental Psychology.