One day not long ago, Augie, a 4-year-old Gopnik grandchild, heard his grandfather wistfully say, “I wish I could be a kid again.” After a thoughtful pause, Augie came up with a suggestion: Grandpa should try not eating any vegetables. The logic was ingenious: Eating vegetables turns children into big strong adults, so not eating vegetables should reverse the process.
No grown-up would ever come up with that idea. But anyone with a 4-year-old can tell similar stories. Young children’s creativity seems to outstrip that of even the most imaginative adults.
How does the ability to come up with unusual ideas change as we grow older? Does it begin to flag in adolescence? Before then? To investigate these questions, we and our colleagues recently conducted several experiments, which we relate in a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
We began with a group of participants of various ages: 4- and 5-year-old preschoolers; 6- to 11-year-olds; 12- to 14-year-old teenagers; and adults. We presented them with a scenario involving a physical machine that lit up when you put some combinations of blocks on it, but not others. Either of two hypotheses could explain how the machine worked. It could work in a usual and obvious way: Some individual blocks would make it light up, and the other blocks were irrelevant. Or it could work in a more unusual way: It would take a combination of different blocks to make the machine light up.
We presented the participants with another scenario as well, also with two possible explanations. This scenario was social: We told a story about Sally, who approached a skateboard, and Josie, who avoided a scooter. How come? The usual explanation was that something about Sally’s and Josie’s individual traits made them act as they did — maybe Sally was braver than Josie. A more unusual, though equally valid, explanation was that something about the situation was important — maybe the skateboard was safer than the scooter. To read more from ALISON GOPNIK and TOM GRIFFITHS, click here.