The Impact of Task Conditions on Young Children's Performance

M. Carole Macklin, University of Cinncinnati
ABSTRACT - Every researcher working with children has observed that an average 7-year old is cognitively more mature than the average 4-year old. In recent years, however, developmental psychologists have increasingly recognized the negative slant of traditional research depicting the cognitive abilities of preschoolers. Gelman (1978) argued that the developmental literature is biased by descriptions of what young children cannot do. The younger child typically appears incompetent when stacked up against the older child.
[ to cite ]:
M. Carole Macklin (1986) ,"The Impact of Task Conditions on Young Children's Performance", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 649.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Page 649

THE IMPACT OF TASK CONDITIONS ON YOUNG CHILDREN'S PERFORMANCE

M. Carole Macklin, University of Cinncinnati

ABSTRACT -

Every researcher working with children has observed that an average 7-year old is cognitively more mature than the average 4-year old. In recent years, however, developmental psychologists have increasingly recognized the negative slant of traditional research depicting the cognitive abilities of preschoolers. Gelman (1978) argued that the developmental literature is biased by descriptions of what young children cannot do. The younger child typically appears incompetent when stacked up against the older child.

An underlying reason for this slant emanated from the field's reliance on Piagetian research. A distinguishing characteristic of Piaget's procedures, both his instructions and elicited responses, was their highly verbal nature. For example, tasks designed to assess a child's understanding of conservation were filtered through such words as "same," "less," "more," and "number." Preschoolers allegedly failed to conserve; namely, they focused on the states of objects rather than on the transformations linking the states. Thus, young children did not realize that some quantitative property of an object did not change by a change in perceptual appearance.

With Piaget's number conservation task, young children believed that the number of objects in a row changed when the items were pulled together or spread apart. Gelman (1972) developed a more age-appropriate task that eliminated such ambiguous (at least to the preschooler) terms as, "number," "more," and "less." Displays of values, for example, 2 and 3, were labeled with the words "the winner" and "the loser." The child had to find the winner and tell why one value was so labeled. Further, when the experimenter altered one of the displays, such as by addition, and the child was queried about the transformation. The results from the "magic task" indicated that preschoolers understood that the lengthening or shortening of an array did not change the numerical value

Piaget also believed that the young child is necessarily egocentric, meaning the child interprets the world in terms of self. For example, in a communications task, children were labeled egocentric because they could not repeat explanations about the workings of watertaps. Shatz and Gelman (1973) argued that the difficulty of the task might prohibit the child's ability to account for the listener's needs. That is, the failure was not due to language insufficiency and/or narrow perspective-taking, but because of task complexity requiring discussion about an unfamiliar object. These researchers asked preschoolers to describe the workings of a toy. Children tailored their speech appropriately; indeed 4-year-olds altered the complexity of syntax and the content of the messages when talking to 2-year-olds versus adults. Thus, young children were shown not be necessarily egocentric communicators.

Therefore, two Piagetian conclusions about the young child were successfully challenged: 1) a failure to conserve and 2) to interpret the world beyond self. Those challenges, briefly illustrated by the preceding examples, suggested the importance of task difficulty, task instructions, and required responses for successful completion. All three factors influence outcomes and subsequent conclusions about the child.

The Piagetian influence has been likewise felt in applied research. Adopting this framework, early researchers on advertising effects found that children's responses meshed with Piaget's stage-like view of development. One important conclusion about the young child was that he/she did not understand the persuasive intent of television commercials. The conclusion about children's lack of commercial understanding was based on numerous studies that incorporated the stage perspective (e.g., Blatt, Spencer, and Ward 1972). Early works relied upon open-ended questioning to assess abilities. The reader can surmise the limitation of this approach. As developmental psychologists discovered, tasks requiring mature expository skills are slanted towards the older child's success and the younger child's failure.

Advertising researchers have begun to acknowledge the limitation of survey techniques; however, preliminary evidence with other types of techniques indicates that much work is needed to determine the appropriateness tasks for measuring children's responses. Donohue, Henke, and Donohue (1980) reported results from a picture selection task which indicated 2-and 3-year olds understood commercial intent when asked to pick one of two sketches. Macklin (1985) reported 8 failure to replicate such indications when the alternatives were widened to include additional product display. It was argued that the original task may have been simply too easy, and that other types of nonverbaL measures are needed.

The necessity of multiple measures of commercial understanding is straightforward and reinforces what developmental psychologists have found about the child. Namely, the appropriateness of the task in terms of design, instructions. and required responses affect assessment of children's abilities. Not just one task nor just one measure of abilities can be expected to be definitive of children's skills. Just as children's abilities to conserve quantity or to assume the perspective of another are determined by multiple efforts, an accurate view of children's processing of commercials will require multiple approaches. Advertising researchers must be prepared to provide a converging web of evidence about children's skills in an advertising context.

REFERENCES

Blatt, Joan, Lyle Spencer, and Scott Ward (1972), "A Cognitive Developmental Study of Children's Reactions to Television Advertising," in Television and Social Behavior, eds. E. A. Rubinstein, G. A. Comstock, and J. P. Murray, Washington. D. C.: U. S. Government Printing Office. 452-467.

Donohue, Thomas R., Lucy L. Henke, and William A. Donohue (1980), "Do Kids Know What TV Commercials Intend?," Journal of Advertising Research, 20 (5), 51.

Gelman, Rochel (1972), "The Nature and Development of Early Number Concepts," Advanced Child Development, 7, 115-167.

Gelman, Rochel (1978), "Cognitive Development," Annual Review of Psychology, 29, 297-332.

Macklin, M. Carole (1985), "Do Young Children Understand the Selling Intent of Commercials?," Journal of Consumer Affairs, 19 (Winter), 66-74.

Shatz, Marilyn and Rochel Gelman (1973), "The Development of Communication Skills," Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 38 (5, Serial No. 152).

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