It's one of the ways in which children are different from adults: while adults would prioritize rewards, children would often prefer a chance to explore -- and this exploration is not random.
“Exploration seems to be a major driving force during early childhood – even outweighing the importance of immediate rewards,” said Vladimir Sloutsky, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.
In the new study, Soutsky and colleagues conducted two studies on groups of adults and children aged 4 to 5. In the first study, 32 4-year-olds and 34 adults played the same computer game. The game screen showed four alien creatures. When participants clicked on each creature, they were given a fixed number of virtual candies. Creatures gave out 1, 2, 3, and 10 pieces of candy respectively -- so one clearly gave out more than the others. The task was to get as much candy as possible.
Both kids and adults quickly learned who the big reward creature was, but while adults selected the creature 86% of the time, kids only selected it 43% of the time. It's not because they forgot who it was -- on a memory test after the game, kids remembered who the high-reward creature was. They just prioritized exploring the other creatures as well, despite the rewards (the researchers also offered children stickers in exchange for virtual candies at the end of the experiment). In other words, they prioritized exploration over rewards.
“The children were not motivated by achieving the maximum reward to the extent that adults were,” said co-author Nathaniel Blanco, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at Ohio State. “Instead, children seemed primarily motivated by the information gained through exploring.”
It also wasn't just random clicking on the alien creatures, researchers note. After identifying which creature gave the greatest reward, kids would systematically click on all the others, without going too long before testing all the creatures.
The second study was somewhat similar, but the reward values were visible beforehand -- except for one. Yet again, adults were more likely to click the high-reward creature, while kids were drawn to the uncertainty of the hidden reward.
However, not all kids behaved similarly. Some tended to be more adult-like, opting for the utilitarian, rewards-based approach, but most tended to be curious and explore all the possible options.
This is not entirely surprising, since it's important for young children to explore and familiarize themselves with the world around them -- even though it's notable that kids even gave up a tangible reward for this. What is most interesting, researchers say, is the way children were exploring.
“Even though we knew that children like to run around and investigate things, we’re now learning that there is a lot of regularity to their behavior,” Sloutsky said.
“Children’s seemingly erratic behavior at this age appears to be largely molded by a drive to stockpile information,” concluded Blanco.
The study has been published in Developmental Science.