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