Problem solving : 18-month-olds are savvy when it comes to deciding when and how to try


According to a study from Arizona State University, the University of Washington and University of Toronto that has implications for how people learn, infants do not try things at random or simply mimic what they see adults doing.

Instead, they combine information from their own firsthand experience and the experiences of other people to decide whether to persist in trying to solve a problem. The study will be published in Nature Human Behaviour on January 20.

“Persistence is important and plays a role in learning and life outcomes like school performance and emotional well-being,” said Kelsey Lucca, assistant professor of psychology at ASU and first author on the paper.

“But, it’s not always a good idea to persist because effort is a limited resource, and deploying effort is metabolically costly, requiring time and energy. What truly drives learning is knowing when to try and what the best way to try is.”

Nevertheless, the infant persisted

The research team devised an experiment that provided 18-month-old infants with social information and first-hand experience when solving a problem. Each of the 96 infants who participated in the experiment sat on their parent’s lap at a table.

Just out of reach on the table was a clear box with a toy inside. The box had a rope attached to it, and an experimenter seated at the table showed the infant how the rope could be pulled to bring the box, and the toy inside, within reach.

The infants saw one of three scenarios: the experimenter easily move the box, the experimenter struggle but ultimately succeed in moving the box, or the experimenter fail to move the box.

In the first scenario, the experimenter pulled the rope and easily moved the box across the table on the first try. In the second scenario, the experimenter tried pulling on the rope five times and succeeded on the fifth try.

The final scenario was the same as the second, except the experimenter was unsuccessful at moving the box and gave up after the fifth attempt.

Then it was the infants turn to try. Unbeknownst to the them, the experimenter had switched the box for one that was affixed to the table and impossible to move.

The infants had three chances to move the box, and on each attempt the research team measured how much time they spent pulling the rope and how hard they pulled.

The infants who saw the experimenter fail to move the box or easily succeed at moving it spent progressively less time trying to move the box with each attempt.

Only the infants who watched the experimenter struggle but then succeed persisted in trying to move the box. These infants spent about the same amount of time on each attempt.

“This finding suggests that the toddlers engaged in a sophisticated decision-making process, similar to how adults might create a list of pros and cons and use it to influence their choice,” said Jessica Sommerville, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and senior author on the paper.

“The toddlers computed the utility, or usefulness, of trying to move the box by weighting the potential costs of what they had to lose – whether it was worth it keep pulling the rope – against what they had to gain in terms of the likelihood they could access the toy.”

How hard the infants pulled on the rope was also related to what they watched the experimenter demonstrate. The infants who saw the experimenter fail to move the box did not pull the rope as hard as the two other groups who saw the experimenter succeed in moving the box.

The infants who saw the experimenter easily move the box pulled the rope the hardest, and the infants who saw the experimenter struggle and succeed ramped up how hard they pulled on the rope with each attempt, suggesting both these two groups were confident they would be able to move the box by increasing their effort.

Infant inferences

After the three impossible trials, the research team again switched the box, this time for one that could move. On these trials, all three groups of infants successfully moved the box and accessed the toy inside.

The research team examined whether the infants showed help-seeking behaviors like pointing or reaching towards the box.

The infants only sought help when they actually needed it, on the attempts when the box was affixed to the table and impossible to move. They did not ask for help on the trials when the box was moveable.

The infants who saw the experimenter easily move the box requested help more than the other two groups, which indicates that the infants also only sought help when they knew it would be useful.

“The infants who saw the experimenter easily move the box traded off trying for help seeking, suggesting that they realized the most adaptive strategy in that context was to get help from someone who can solve the problem,” Lucca said.

“The infants who saw the experimenter struggle but succeed needed the least amount of support to solve the task – suggesting that demonstrations of hard work and effort have carry over effects that impact infants’ motivation in future tasks.”

This shows a mom and baby participating in the experiment

An infant pulls on a rope, trying to move the box across the table. Infants used their own experience and that of the experimenter when deciding whether and how much to try. Both types of experiences also influenced whether they asked for help or became frustrated. Image is credited to Toronto Early Cognition Lab.

The team also assessed whether the infants’ facial expressions showed positive or negative emotions while they tried to move the box. The infants who saw the experimenter easily move the box showed the most frustration, because their expectations for what was supposed to happen did not match their experience. These infants also required the most prompting to try and move the box on the trials when it was moveable.

“It seems intuitive that the experience of kids facing a challenge is inherently frustrating, but we found that the mismatch between expectations and experience is actually what is frustrating,” Sommerville said. “Setting appropriate expectations for kids about difficulty and effort doesn’t dissuade them, it lets them scale their expectations so when something is hard, they can choose to keep trying.”

Funding: Rachel Horton from the University of Washington also contributed to the study, which was supported by the Society of Research on Child Development and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Childhood and adolescence are critical periods to promote mental health as more than half of mental health problems start at these stages, and many of these persist throughout adult life (Kessler et al., 2005).

Currently, this has become a priority as worldwide data shows an increase in the prevalence of mental health issues in childhood and adolescence (de la Barra M, 2009) and the percentage of those afflicted reaching nearly 20% (WHO, 2016). The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that many of these children and adolescents are not receiving the specialized care they require (Mills et al., 2006; Weist and Murray, 2008; Green et al., 2013).

Consequently, important efforts to bring together the best evidence about mental health have been done and raised the challenge of agreeing about fundamental issues in the field such as the definition of mental health and other related concepts (Mehta et al., 2015). According to WHO, mental health is understood not as a mere absence of illness, but rather, in a broader sense, as a state of well-being in which individuals develop their abilities, face the stress of daily life, perform productive and fruitful work, and contribute to the betterment of their community (WHO, 2004).

This definition served as the basis for WHO Mental Health Action Plan, 2013–2020, which incorporates the concepts of mental health promotion, mental illness prevention and treatment, and rehabilitation. Particularly, developmental aspects of children and young people, including, for instance, the ability to manage thoughts, emotions, as well as to build social relationships, and the aptitude to learn, are emphasized in the plan as critical facets to be tackled in mental health interventions.

Mental health interventions conducted in schools and in the communities start from the premise that the problems experienced by adolescents are determined by the interaction of individual, environmental and family factors (Manjula, 2015). Accordingly, schools and communities offer an optimal context to intervene as children and adolescents grow and develop through social interaction. Schools and communities can make the most of its environment to foster child and youth development and to promote good mental health (Weist and Murray, 2008).

Many of the mental health programs implemented in schools promote the development of social skills, socio-emotional competences, and learning outcomes while at the same time reducing disruptive behavior (Dowdy et al., 2010; Moreira et al., 2010; Durlak et al., 2011; Suldo et al., 2014). The school environment and climate can therefore play a critical role in encouraging the promotion of protective factors for mental health, such as social-emotional competences and skills (Osher et al., 2012).

Hence, social and cognitive development is enacted through social interactions in a particular cultural and social context (Vygotsky, 1978; Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Drawing on the contributions of Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development, human interaction that takes place in the social and cultural context enhances learning and is fundamental for psychological function.

These cultural processes in which people learn and developed occur through interactions with others, including symmetrical (peer) as well as expert–novice (e.g., teacher–student) relations (Rogoff, 1990; Cole, 1996). Importantly, specific instruments have been produced to capture productive forms of dialogue across educational contexts (Hennessy et al., 2016).

Most of the research have been devoted to understanding the central role played by the quality of dialogue and interaction between students, in small group classrooms, or in whole class setting teacher-student interaction (see review by Howe and Abedin, 2013).

Furthermore, research conducted in community-based schools has also reported the benefit of involving families and community members in learning interactions with elementary students, especially for those belonging to vulnerable populations (Flecha and Soler, 2013; Valls and Kyriakides, 2013).

Accordingly, community plays a central role as human develop through their interactions in the sociocultural activities of their communities (Rogoff, 2003). Similar improvements have been reported among students with disabilities as a result of engaging in caring and supportive interactions among peers and with other adults when solving academic tasks in interactive groups (García-Carrión et al., 2018).

The relevance of productive forms of dialogue and supportive interactions among peers, teachers and other community members, have also reported positive effects in 4th grade students prosocial behavior (Villardón-Gallego et al., 2018). These studies evidence the potential of educational interventions that draw on the potential of fostering interactions among different agents and promote productive dialogues as a tools for academic and social improvement.

However, when searching for mental health improvement through dialogic interactions, the research is scarce. The pioneering study carried out by Seikkula and Arnkil (2006) showed the psychological and social benefits of the therapy based on open and anticipation dialogues with adults and adolescents that also involved the family along with the professionals.

Rather than focusing in the individual, facilitating supportive interactions among peers, professionals and family members might be an asset underpinning mental health interventions with children and adolescents.

This study showed the critical role of collective interactions, which were very different from a dialogue between two individuals (Seikkula and Arnkil, 2006). They identified multi-system treatments (MST) characterized by engaging in close interaction professionals with adolescents, family, and other networks.

Replication of these US studies in Norway found evidence of effectiveness, particularly, in the adolescents’ social skills (Ogden and Halliday-Boykins, 2004). However, according to Seikkula and Arnkil (2006, p. 181): “what ultimately caused the observed outcome was not revealed. After all, methods do not help or cure anyone as such. Psychological methods -and other interaction-based means- exist as they user activity.”

Whereas, determining the effect of the interaction itself in the outcomes obtained might be problematic, the authors of these paper aim to examine interaction-based mental health interventions, defined as those in which collective interactions, that involve professionals, family and community members with children and adolescents, are an integral component of the intervention.

This systematic review focuses on those interventions conducted in schools and communities and its outcomes on children and adolescents’ mental health. According to the WHO definition of mental health provided above, primary studies selected for this review will include positive outcomes in a broader sense, comprising not only the reduction of symptoms of mental disorder but also the promotion of emotional well-being.

Arizona State University


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Questo sito usa Akismet per ridurre lo spam. Scopri come i tuoi dati vengono elaborati.