Learning to Balance a Beam: The Effect of Instability


When presented with a problem-solving task, children sometimes fail to discern relevant pieces of information. Instead, they base their judgment on irrelevant information, sometimes ignoring corrective feedback. How could experience highlight relevant information? Using insights from complexity science, the current paper tests the usefulness of adding instability, or noise, to a child’s experience. The idea is that an appropriate amount of instability flattens the attractor space of mistaken performance, allowing children to explore aspects of the environment perhaps considered irrelevant. To test this idea, we asked children between 4 and 9 years of age to place beams on a fulcrum where they would balance. Instability was conceptualized using beams for which the weight distribution was difficult to discern. While 4- to 5-year-olds and adults were unaffected by the noise manipulation, possibly for different reasons, 7- to 9-year-olds balanced the beams better when instability was at an intermediate level.

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