What motivates preschool children to prepare

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 (Image: Pixabay CC0)
(Image: Pixabay CC0)

In everyday life, adults think about the future an average of 59 times a day. This helps them to cope with future challenges. What about children?

Adults are particularly good at preparing for the future when they imagine what they will feel. Researchers at Ruhr University Bochum have investigated whether this is also the case with pre-school children. In a study with 90 children aged five, they showed that children only prepare for a game when they imagine how bad losing will feel. The researchers conducted the study as part of the philosophical-psychological research training group "Situated Cognition", which is funded by the German Research Foundation. They described the results in the journal "Emotion" from March 28, 2024.

Preschool children often live in the here and now

Practicing for a performance, getting a present for the birthday boy or girl and packing a book for the long car journey. Everyday life is full of events that children need to prepare for. "Without the support of adults, however, preschool children rarely succeed," says Babett Voigt, who led the study together with Felix Schreiber. Even when preschool children are asked to imagine an upcoming event, they often just act as they feel like it. Surprisingly, it was not yet known why this is the case."

Imagine how you will feel

In the online study, the children visited two virtual rooms. In the first room, they were introduced to three games. They also learned that they would return to this room later, that there would be a test in one of the games and that they could win a sticker. In the second room, some of the children were asked to imagine how good it would feel to win lots of stickers, while others were asked to imagine how bad it would feel to win just a few stickers. The third group was only reminded of the test.

The researchers then presented the children with the same three games as in the first room. They could decide which of the games they wanted to play until they returned to the first room. The decisive factor for the researchers was whether the children chose the game with which the test would later take place. Only the children who had imagined winning a few stickers were more likely to choose the game for which the test had been announced.

Pessimistic outlook motivates

This shows that ideas about future events and feelings influence how children behave in the here and now. "A pessimistic outlook seems to motivate children to prepare for events," says Babett Voigt. "We suspect that preschool children rarely think spontaneously about how unpleasant something will feel." Future studies must now test this hypothesis.

Felix Schreiber, Silvia Schneider, Albert Newen, Babett Voigt: Negative (but Not Positive) Affective Episodic Future Thinking Enhances Proactive Behavior in 5-Year-Old Children, in: Emotion, 2024, DOI: 10.1037/emo0001345