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Child’s Play!

March 14, 2011
by Katie Goldsmith
a cartoon of a preschooler with a squirrel

Preschoolers use statistics to understand others.

As part of Professor Fei Xu’s recent psychology research, preschoolers played a game with Squirrel the hand puppet, in which they tried to determine his favorite toy. Would he pick blue flowers or red circles out of the box? Sounds simple enough, and for these toddlers, it may have been just plain fun. But for Xu, it was a demonstration of how well these tykes have mastered statistics.

In the experiment, Xu and her colleagues found that the children were able to assess how much Squirrel liked a particular toy based on how common it was. For example, if they knew there were lots of blue flowers in the box, then the toddlers didn’t think it important that Squirrel picked one out. On the other hand, if there were only a few blue flowers in a box full of red circles, the children concluded that that kind of toy was Squirrel’s favorite. In other words, they were able to understand the significance of the selection by weighing the probability that it would be chosen by chance alone—the rarer it was, the more Squirrel must like it. Even infants as young as 19 months were able to draw similar conclusions in a modified experiment.

Xu’s research contributes to the long-standing mystery of how babies learn such a large amount so quickly and efficiently very early in life. Answering this question has been one of her lab’s goals. In her work with children, Xu has been researching ways that young children use statistics to learn about their environment. But this most recent study takes that notion a step further—by showing that the tots can use this innate skill to infer people’s preferences. Impressive, considering that simple addition and subtraction is still over their heads.

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