Would you like cake or broccoli? – toddlers tend to pick the last option, even if it’s not what they actually want

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“Would you like cake or broccoli?”

If you ask a child under the age of 3, the answer – eight times out of 10 – will be broccoli.

But this has less to do with parents successfully instilling healthy food preferences than the order in which the choices are presented.

A study led by the University of California, Irvine and published in the online journal PLOS One has found that toddlers are highly subject to “recency bias” when faced with “or” questions: They tend to pick the last option, even if it’s not what they actually want.

“Adults are able to distinguish between choices and are oftentimes more likely to select the first one.

This is called primacy bias,” said the study’s lead author, Emily Sumner, a UCI doctoral candidate in cognitive sciences.

“But kids, particularly toddlers under 3, who may not know language as well, demonstrate a recency bias when responding to questions verbally, meaning the last choice presented is more often selected.

This area hasn’t been studied in children before, so this is fascinating to pinpoint.”

Researchers asked 24 toddlers between 21 and 27 months old 20 questions in which they had to choose between option 1 and option 2.

They then posed the same questions again, with the options in reverse order.

After speaking each answer, the children were given a sticker depicting their selection

If they didn’t say which option they wanted, both stickers were shown when the question was asked, and they pointed to their choice.

When toddlers responded verbally, they picked the last option presented 85.2 percent of the time.

When pointing rather than speaking, they chose the last option only 51.6 percent of the time.

According to Sumner, this difference is related to the development of children’s working memory, which is concerned with immediate conscious perception and linguistic processing, along with something called the phonological loop.

Credit: University of California, Irvine

“When a child is pointing, they can see the options and choose their actual preference,” she explained.

“When they have no visual references and only hear ‘or,’ they’re able to hold onto the most recently mentioned option by depending on the phonological loop.

The children understand how speech sounds but not necessarily what the words mean.

So when speaking, they’re just parroting back the most recently mentioned choice.”

The researchers also reviewed the Child Language Data Exchange System, a computerized database of transcribed conversations between parents and their children to determine if the same bias applies in real-world interactions.

They analyzed 534 “or” questions and discovered that the likelihood of responding with the second option decreased as children got older.

It was selected 64 percent of the time by 2-year-olds, while 3- and 4-year-olds chose the second option 50 percent of the time.

This suggests that recency bias is present until about the age of 3.

Additional experiments were conducted with 24 preschoolers to determine if working memory constraints, such as age and word length, drive recency bias.

The children were asked to name toy cartoon characters by choosing between two nonsense words varying in syllable count – Stog or Meeb, for example, or Hootamawhirl or Haykidosi.

If asked the right way, toddlers will choose broccoli over cake, study finds
One of the greatest challenges for parents and developmental psychologists alike is figuring out what children are thinking, which is particularly difficult to determine in early childhood,” says the study’s lead author, Emily Sumner, a UCI doctoral candidate in cognitive sciences. “Our findings suggest that some youngsters’ verbal responses may be the result of recency bias—repeating what they last heard—and don’t necessarily indicate that they comprehend the words they speak.” Credit: Yubo Dong / UCI

Researchers found that most preschoolers were apt to exhibit a recency bias throughout the entire process.

Further results showed that with most of the children, the more syllables the words had, the stronger the recency bias.

This suggests that when working memory is constrained, even older kids are more likely to revert back to recency bias.

“Our study demonstrates the importance of swapping the order of options when asking young children about their preferences, because they don’t always know what they’re saying,” Sumner said.

“For experimental psychologists, research methods that require verbal responses should be carefully counterbalanced.

Parents, however, may wish to use such a biased design when asking toddlers if they’d like cake or broccoli.”


Providing young children opportunities to make a choice can help them to :

  • builds respect,
  • strengthens community,
  • invites cooperation,
  • develops problem-solving skills, and
  • capitalizes on kids’ normal human need for power and control. 

Avoid overwhelming them 

Kids want and expect their parents to provide structure and make key family decisions. It helps them feel safe. While it’s great to give kids a say in things, too many or too big of  choices can overwhelm them or put too much pressure on them.

Give young children the choice between only two things. If they don’t or can’t pick between the two, don’t offer a third. (This doesn’t include “free play time,” where they should be able to do whatever they’re interested in.)

Be consistent 

If you give children choices once, but not the next time, they naturally get frustrated and protest. Their confusion often results in them “pushing back,” questioning, or refusing to comply as a way to determine where the “real” boundaries are. Adults often end up viewing this “push-back” as uncooperative or acting-out behavior when it is really just a way for children to determine the extent of their power.

If one night you say, “What do you want for dinner?” and the next night you say, “We’re having lasagna and you can’t have anything different,” they are likely to whine or protest because boundaries become confusing.

If one weekend you ask, “What do you want to do this morning? Our whole family will do anything you want.” And the next weekend you say, “You are going with Dad to the grocery store then coming to a friend’s house with me,” kids may not understand the incongruence.

Create a ritual around choices

Make certain choices “rituals.” For example, when you go to the park, name two parks and they choose which one.

Every Saturday morning they may choose to run errands with you or stay home.

Every Friday movie night, put two movies in front of your child and let them choose one. At the library, always let them choose 5 books.

At night, they can choose night light on or door open. At lunch, they can choose water or milk to drink. At dinner, they can eat the regular meal or eat Cheerios instead (or whatever choices work for your own family).

Ask them to help you fix problems

If your child is having trouble doing the tasks needed to get out the door, put him in charge.

Create a checklist on a clipboard of stick-figure pictures of all the things he needs to do to get ready, and have him cross off each thing as it gets done.

Ask your child to help you solve the problem of caps not being put back on markers. (She will be more likely to put the caps on, no matter what strategy she comes up with).

If there are books all over your child’s bedroom floor, ask her how she thinks the floor could stay clear.

Thank and reinforce 

If your child shoveled his books off the floor, you could say, “Wow, this shovel idea you thought of is really working out well. I see the floor is as clear as ever! You’re really taking care of your room.”

If your child chose swimming over hiking, you might say, “Thanks for choosing swimming. It was so fun to splash in the water with you.”

If your child chooses to run errands with you, comment, “I’m so glad you chose to help me out. Doing errands is always more fun with you by my side.”


More information: Emily Sumner et al. Cake or broccoli? Recency biases children’s verbal responses, PLOS ONE (2019). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0217207

Journal information: PLoS ONE
Provided by University of California, Irvine

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