Probabilistic decision making in children

What kind of sandwich do I want for breakfast? Who do I want to play with? What good night story do I want to hear?

Parents, daycare workers, and teachers all seek to enable children to make increasingly independent decisions. Even organizations such as UNICEF recommend that children be included in political and societal decisions. Yet, we still know little about whether children can indeed make good decisions. In our project funded by the German Research Association (DFG), we attempt to answer such questions. To do so, we ask children of different ages to participate in decision making games. We then observe how they search for relevant information, apply decision making rules, and handle the subsequent consequences of their decisions. This helps us understand how decisions must be structured so that they can be successfully addressed by children.

First project phase 2013-2017

With a total of 226,000 Euro, the German Research Association (DFG) funded Dr. Tilmann Betsch‘s project „Probabilistic Decisions in Children“ in the Department for Social, Organizational, and Economic Psychology at the University of Erfurt. The research project addresses the question of how children make decisions under risk as well as how decision making competencies develop from preschool to middle school age.

From what age and under what conditions can children systematically utilize probabilistic information in decision making? How do they use that information – as criteria for structuring selective information search and/or weights when integrating different sources of information? Empirical research to date has contributed conflicting findings. Two theoretical models of decision making (multiple strategy vs. connectionism) lead to competing assumptions regarding decision making processes. These assumptions will be systematically examined in a series of lab experiments comparing preschool and school age children with adults. The decision making environment developed specifically for this purpose utilizes an information board and allows for both the variation of decision characteristics and the behavior-based measurement of probability use in information search and integration. The findings will not only provide answers to the questions listed above but also critically test the competing assumptions of theoretical decision making models.

Second project phase 2017-2021

An additional 371,000 Euro by the German Research Associtation (DFG) funded the second phase of Dr. Tilmann Betsch’s project “Probabilistic Decisions in Children” in the Department of Social, Organizationall, and Economic Psychology. The project examines when children make good decisions. “Our research to date has shown that children can already do a lot.”, said Tilmann Betsch, “However, there are environments that make it either easier or more difficult for children to use their skills”. Thus, in the second phase of the research project, the team will examine how decision environments must be structured in order to enable children to make good decisions. The research project will examine decisions that involve probabilities: “Primary school children and even preschoolers can utilize probabilities. But only if the environment makes it easy for them to do so. Children still have a long way to go before they can also do that under difficult conditions.”, according to Tilmann Betsch.

Key Research Findings

Do children use relevant information in their decisions? Do they get distracted by unimportant information?

When making decisions, it is often important to be able to handle probabilities. Consequences of a decision are often not certain but rather related to a given probability. At what age can children use probabilities in their decision making?

To answer this question, children aged 6 to 9 were confronted with a decision making game: in this game, children searched for hidden treasure with the help of two animal advice givers. The animals reported where they thought the treasure was hidden. However, their advice was not always correct. The advice of the first animal was correct 50 % of the time. The second animal was correct 83% of the time. Children and adults experienced the accuracy of the advice givers. They then made a series of decisions regarding where to hunt for the treasure while following the advice of the smarter or less smart advice giver. In addition, either the smarter or the less smart animal became the child or adult decision maker’s friend. Following one’s friend may lead to better decisions when the friend provides good advice. However, it leads to worse decisions when the friend is the less smart animal.

The results indicate that adults trust the smarter animal more than do children. Thus, they take the advice giver’s accuracy into account. Thus, 9-year-olds do not yet possess the same ability to use probabilistic information as adults. In addition, preschool children are especially susceptible to using irrelevant information. In comparison to primary school children and adults, they still trusted their animal friend even when the other animal provided more accurate advice.

Our study also showed that even preschool children can take many sources of information into account. However, they do not understand which information is relevant to the decision at hand. Thus, the influence of irrelevant information is especially strong for this age group.

Paper: Betsch, T., & Lang, A. (2013). Utilization of probabilistic cues in the presence of irrelevant information: A comparison of risky choice in children and adults. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 115, 108–125.

How well can children search for important information when making a decision?

Often times not all relevant information is immediately available when making a decision but rather must first be searched. The ability to search for information thus often influences decision quality: a good decision cannot be made when important information was not included in information search. Thus, we examined at which age children can search information. To do so, we confronted children with decision environments in which different probabilities and search constraints must be taken into account. For example, in some environments only allow for a limited amount of information to be searched. In such environments, it is especially important that only relevant information be searched. In this case, this includes information related to high probabilities, which are especially helpful in decision making. However, children aged 6 – 9 years failed to systematically search information. Instead, they often searched irrelevant information and thus made poor decisions. 9-year-olds, however, can take probabilities into account when making decisions. Thus, this indicates that children’s understanding of probabilities is not yet sufficiently high to facilitate efficient information search. In contrast, even an intuitive understanding of probabilities is sufficient for effective information integration.

Paper: Betsch, T., Lehmann, A., Lindow, S., Lang, A., & Schoemann, M. (2016). Lost in search: (Mal-)adaptation to probabilistic decision environments in children and adults. Developmental Psychology, 52, 311–25.

What is more difficult – searching important information or ignoring unimportant information?

Different environments present different challenges to decision makers. Sometimes important information must first be searched in order to make a decision. Thus, good decision making requires the ability to strategically search for information. If this is not achieved, decision quality will suffer. Other environments already provide a wide range of information. In this case, information must not be effortfully searched. However, it is difficult to ignore the influence of irrelevant information. Thus, we examined whether such environmental differences make decision making easier or more difficult for children.

Our results indicate that primary school children profit when all information is immediately available and must not be searched. Preschoolers, however, also fail to make particularly good decisions even in such an environment. All children and even adults are also influenced by irrelevant information. This has a negative effect on decision quality, but also demonstrates that children are capable of integrated multiple sources of information.

Paper: Betsch, T., Lang, A., Lehmann, A., & Axmann, J. M. (2014). Utilizing probabilities as decision weights in closed and open information boards: A comparison of children and adults. Acta Psychologica, 153, 74–86.

Are decisions with feedback (more) difficult for children?

Receiving feedback about whether a decision was good or bad can be immensely helpful and lead to better decisions. When children are informed of the outcome of their decisions, however, this may also distract from more important information or be interpreted incorrectly. For example, children tend to immediately change their decision making behavior immediately following disappointment. However, even optimal decision making does not always lead to positive outcomes. Thus, we examined whether children make worse decisions if they are immediately informed of the decision outcome.

To do so, children aged 6 to 9 made decisions involving probabilities. Half of the children were given feedback directly after making a decision about whether the decision led to a positive or negative outcome. The other half did not receive this information.

Our findings indicate that the 6-year-olds, in particular, reacted especially strongly to a negative outcome and tended to immediately change their decision making behavior. Still, most children at this age ignore probabilities even when they do not receive feedback about their decision outcomes. Instead, they use irrelevant information to make their decisions – but they do so in a quite systematic manner. Older children make better decisions, do not react as strongly to negative decision outcomes, and take probabilities into account to a certain extent.

This indicates that children 6-years and older are generally capable of systematically using information and making decisions. However, they have difficult recognizing that probabilities should be taken into account, irrespective of whether children immediately learn about their decision outcomes or not.

Paper: Lang, A. & Betsch, T. (2018). Children’s neglect of probabilities in decision making with and without feedback. Frontiers in Psychology 9, Article: 191.

What about everyday decisions? Can preschoolers weigh information here?

Being able to distinguish relevant or valid information from irrelevant or even false information is an important skill in making competent decisions. Our previous studies have suggested that preschoolers have major problems doing this. Accordingly, the ability to use information "correctly" is not fully developed even at age nine.

In contrast to our previous studies, this time we investigated decision making in an everyday, familiar context. For this purpose, we developed an interactive children's book for preschool children (5-6 years). The children made realistic decisions in a familiar kindergarten context with the help of two advise-givers. For example, the children decided about their lunch or which story they wanted to be read. The advise-givers who assisted the children in making these decisions differed in their predictive accuracy. We were able to show that preschoolers do indeed prioritize the best advise-giver in this everyday context, and that this weighting of information influences their decisions. However, even in the familiar kindergarten context, the preschoolers in our study still showed a tendency to seek too much and thus irrelevant information.

These findings are important because they show that preschoolers are already capable of weighing and systematically using information for their decisions. Future research should therefore pay even more attention to the situation in which decisions are made. Are these new, unfamiliar contexts or are they familiar situations?

Paper: Lindow, S., & Betsch, T. (2021). Pre-schoolers’ competence to use advice in everyday decision contexts. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 215, Article 105311.

Research paradigm: Decision game "Treasure hunt with my animal friends"

[Translate to English:] Schatzsuchespiel Holz

As part of a research project, we developed a child-friendly decision game in order to examine the development of decision making behavior in children. Our treasure hunt game is a decision game similar to the Mouselab paradigm used in adult research (Payne, Bettman, & Johnson, 1988) made for examining decision making behavior in children and adults

In the treasure hunt game, participants search for a treasure that is hidden in one of a number of houses. To successfully solve this task, participants can first select animals to help them with the treasure hunt. The animals provide advice about what is hidden in the different houses – either a treasure or a spider. By asking animals for advice, one can locate the house containing the treasure. However, the animals are not equally smart and may provide contradicting advice.

The treasure hunt game is made up of two different phases. In the learning phase, participants first learn the validity of each animal – that is, they observe its rate of providing correct advice. In the subsequent test phase, participants can then make a series of choices between different houses while utilizing the animals’ advice. During the test phase, the animals’ validity is represented by so-called "smart circles", which were assigned to each animal during the learning phase. Learning validities through experience and representing validities as simple frequency displays allow the treasure hunt game to be applicable even to preschoolers.

The treasure hunt game is available as a board game (e.g., Betsch, & Lang, 2013), computer program (Mousekids: e.g, Betsch, Lang, Lehmann, & Axmann, 2014) and card game (Betsch, Lindow, Lehmann, & Stenmans, 2020). The computer game and instruction manual is available here free of charge for non-commerical purposes.

The research lab at a glance

Our research would not be possible without our large team of experimenters – thank you for your support! We would also like to thank the schools and daycare centers in Thuringia who support our research efforts.

This short movie (in German) provides an introduction to our research laboratory.


Lindow, S., & Betsch, T. (2021). Pre-schoolers’ competence to use advice in everyday decision contexts. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 215, Article 105311.

Betsch, T., Lindow, S., Lehmann, A., & Stenmans, R. (2021). From perception to inference: Utilization of probabilities as decision weights in children. Memory and Cognition.

Betsch, T., Lehmann, A., Lindow, S., & Buttelmann, D. (2020). Children's trust in informants in risky decisions. Cognitive Development, 53, 100846.

Betsch, T., Lehmann, A., Jekel, M., Lindow, S., & Glöckner, A. (2018). Children’s application of decision strategies in a compensatory environment. Judgment and Decision Making, 13, 514–528.

Betsch, T., Wünsche, K., Großkopf, A., Schröder, K., & Stenmans, R. (2018). Sonification and visualization of predecisional information search: Identifying toolboxes in children. Developmental Psychology, 54, 474-481.

Lang, A., & Betsch, T. (2018). Neglect of probabilities in decision making with and without feedback. Frontiers in Psychology9, 191.

Betsch, T., Lehmann, A., Lindow, S., Lang, A., & Schoemann, M. (2016). Lost in Search: (Mal-) Adaptation to probabilistic decision environments in children and adults. Developmental Psychology, 52, 311-325.

Betsch, T., Ritter, J., Lang, A., & Lindow, S. (2016). Thinking beyond boundaries. In L. Macchi, M. Bagassi, & R. Viale (Eds.), Cognitive unconscious and human rationality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Betsch, T., Lang, A., Lehmann, A., & Axmann, J.M. (2014). Utilizing probabilities as decision weights in closed and open information boards: A comparison of children and adults. Acta Psychologica, 153, 74-86.

Betsch, T., & Lang, A. (2013). Utilization of probabilistic cues in the presence of irrelevant information: A comparison of risky choice in children and adults. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 115, 108–125.

Involved researchers

Principal Investigator: Prof. Dr. Tilmann Betsch

Project assistant: Dr. Stefanie Lindow

Associated Ph.D. projects in our department:

Cooperation partners: