Back to the Future: psychologists examine children's mental time traveling abilities

August 05, 2008

Planning and anticipating occur so frequently in our everyday lives that it is hard to imagine a time when we didn't have this capability. But just as many other capacities develop, so does this mental time traveling ability. Researchers have recently explored how children comprehend the future and ways that this understanding can be affected by, for example, their current physiological state.

In one particular study, psychologists Cristina Atance from the University of Ottawa and colleague Andrew Meltzoff from the Univeristy of Washington tested children ages three, four and five to determine the precise age that they develop the ability to plan for the future. Atance presented preschoolers with a pretend situation in the future, such as going to the mountains, and then asked them to choose from three items to take along. In the mountain scenario, the three items included a lunch, which would prepare for the possibility of hunger, and two unrelated items, such as a comb and a bowl. Results showed that four- and five-year-olds were more likely to select the correct response for future planning, such as the lunch, than the three-year-olds.

Other findings, which appear in the August 2008 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a publication of the Association for Psychological Science, indicated that children found it difficult to imagine their future selves in a particular situation if they were preoccupied with their current state.

To show this, Atance and Meltzoff presented one group of preschoolers with pretzels, which would cause them to become thirsty, and did not present a second group with anything; both groups later were offered either pretzels or water. The first group of children, who already had eaten pretzels, tended to choose water while the other group selected pretzels. More importantly, two other groups of children--one who had eaten pretzels and one who had not--were asked to choose whether they would prefer pretzels or water for "tomorrow." The psychologists found that the children who ate pretzels to the point of thirst tended to think of the pretzels as undesirable for the next day, whereas the other group did not.

These findings and others can shed light on the childhood development of this mental time-traveling ability and encourage understanding of it in various settings. As Atance said, "This research can benefit parents, teachers and other individuals working with children as it can allow them to set realistic expectations for, and better interpret, children's everyday behavior."
-end-
Author Contact: Cristina Atance atance@uottawa.ca

Current Directions in Psychological Science publishes concise reviews on the latest advances in theory and research spanning all of scientific psychology and its applications. For a copy of "Future Thinking in Young Children," please contact Katie Kline at (202) 293-9300 or kkline@psychologicalscience.org.

Association for Psychological Science

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