As soon as kids begin to talk — or even non-verbally indicate a preference — we start to give them choices. Do you want to wear the red shirt or the yellow shirt?Would you like a peanut butter or grilled cheese sandwich for lunch? Should we read Goodnight Moon or The Very Hungry Caterpillar? We’re trying to give them a tiny amount of control in their otherwise uncontrollable world. And we’re trying to avoid tantrums over the littlest of details.
Sometimes, though, when we give them the green cup instead of the orange cup, just like they wanted, they cry anyway! A new study in published on PLOS ONE says that might be because of something called “recency bias.” When we ask them a question with two choices, they’re much more likely to answer with the second option, not because they truly prefer it but because they have trouble remembering the first option, particularly if the words or phrases are long.
Writer Laura Sanders describes for Growth Curb how this played out in the experiments:
In the first series of experiments, researchers led by Emily Sumner at the University of California, Irvine, asked 24 1- and 2-year-olds a bunch of two-choice questions, some of which involved a polar bear named Rori or a grizzly bear named Quinn. One question, for example, was, “Does Rori live in an igloo or a tepee?” Later, the researchers switched the bear and the order of the options, asking, for example, “Does Quinn live in a tepee or an igloo?”
The toddlers could answer either verbally or, for reluctant speakers, by pointing at one of two stickers that showed the choices. When the children answered the questions by pointing, they chose the second option about half the time, right around chance. But when the toddlers spoke their answers, they chose the second option 85 per cent of the time, regardless of the bear.
On tonight's episode of Why My Toddler is Crying: I gave him a paper towel....that he asked for. ????
— Superhero Girl (@crackedmirror) June 15, 2017
As our kids begin to speak and converse with us, we may have a tendency to assume they understand our questions and the difference between the two options we give them. But as the study points out, just because they can say the words, doesn’t mean they understand the underlying concepts:
In fact, it is quite tempting for anyone who interacts with small children, not only developmental psychologists, to presume a child’s productions, like an adult’s productions, imply conceptual understanding. But this is not always the case. A toddler who is asked if they threw food ‘on accident or on purpose,’ for example, may respond with one of the two choices without any actual knowledge what either difficult-to-infer abstract concept actually means.
On today's episode of Why is my Toddler Crying: I opened her banana like she wanted ???? pic.twitter.com/dMrteAy3ZI
— Cherie ???? (@mericanmademama) May 17, 2016
This doesn’t mean we should stop offering our two-year-olds choices. In fact, by age 3-4, children in this study were not showing the same bias toward option 2. And by the time they reach adulthood, they’ll likely be showing a “primary bias” — a preference for the first option — like the rest of us. In the meantime, though, the study concludes that offering choices is still a good way for toddlers to practice communication skills:
Indeed, this simple strategy [repeating one of the choices without understanding] could be very useful in enabling toddlers to engage in verbal exchanges before they possess fully developed semantic representations for the words that they are using.
But at least it gives us a little more understanding about why your toddler is melting down over the very thing they chose. And if you want to use this bias to your advantage, as the survey’s title — “Cake or broccoli?” — suggests, we wouldn’t blame you.