Our tendency to use external aids to simplify thinking or calculations — a process known as “cognitive offloading” — has its roots in early youth.
A new paper from The University of Queensland (UQ) reports that children as old as 4 will use external aids for cognitive offloading if available. The harder a task is, the paper adds, the more likely an individual is to use these aids.
A little help can’t hurt
“We often use cognitive offloading to simplify some tasks, such as turning to calendars to remind ourselves of upcoming events or calculators when confronted with difficult mathematical problems,” says Kristy Armitage, a Ph.D. candidate at the UQ School of Psychology.
Adults, she explains, show “remarkable flexibility” in this area: they tend to rely on internal processing but will offload the work onto external aids in situations of high demand. The way this tendency develops, however, and how we use this process as we grow up is still poorly understood.
The study focused on children aged 4 to 11 who were given a series of mental rotation tasks — they were asked to imagine the movement of a given object. They could either think of the answer themselves or use a turntable the team provided to solve the problem without using cognitive resources.
Children of all ages used the turntable more frequently as the tasks got harder, the team explains. This shows that we have an early inclination towards offloading mental tasks. Armitage explains that many kids resorted to it “even in situations where it was redundant, offering no benefit to performance.”
In this experiment it was a turntable but calendars, notepads, apps, and many other things serve as cognitive aids. By over-relying on external aids as children, we hopefully better understand when their use is actually warranted by the time we’re grown up.
“With increasing age, children became better at differentiating between situations where the external strategy was beneficial and where it was redundant, showing a similar flexibility to that demonstrated by adults,” Armitage explains.
“These results show how humans gradually calibrate their cognitive offloading strategies throughout childhood and thereby uncover the developmental origins of this central facet of intelligence.”
The paper “Developmental origins of cognitive offloading” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.