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Infants can figure out like adults where fault lies with broken toys

June 24, 2011 - London

A study has found that infants can reason out just like adults where the fault lies when it comes to handling a broken toy.

Hyowon Gweon and Laura Schulz at Massachusetts Institute of Technology studied how 16-month-olds dealt with faulty goods, with a toy that has a button on top which when pressed caused music to be played.

In an initial trial, two adults demonstrated to an infant how to play with the toy. The adults each pressed the button twice. For each of the adults, one of the presses was successful - the toy played the music - while another was not.

The adults then gave the toy to the infant to play with - except that now, the button no longer caused a sound to play.

According to Gweon and Schulz, when the child pressed the button and realised it did not work, he or she had to make a decision: does the problem lie with me, or the toy?

For any adult, common sense would imply that the toy is faulty - both adults had previously had trouble making it play the music.

The infants were seemingly able to work this out too and, after a few unsuccessful attempts at starting the music by pressing the button, 12 out of 17 infants gave up and reached for another toy.

But the infants also showed they were capable of shouldering the blame for an inactive toy. In a separate trial, one adult's button presses always worked, while the second adult's always failed.

The children figured that, when the toy didn't work for them, they were probably doing something wrong, like the unsuccessful adult. As a result, 13 out of 19 children passed their toy to their parents for help.

"The children are showing surprising competence in using statistical information to solve problems," News Scientist quoted Gweon as saying.

"Our study shows that young babies are rational learners that possess powerful learning mechanisms that allow them to make generalisations from a small amount of data," Gweon stated.

Sara Cordes, who researches child cognition at Boston College in Massachusetts, said the findings add to a growing body of evidence that young children are more capable problem solvers than was previously thought.

"They suggest that infants think about causality in much the same way that we would expect adults to. Infants are essentially little adults when it comes to problem solving," Cordes added.


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