A Peek into a Child’s Mind

Written by: Setoh Pei Pei

What goes on inside a child’s mind? Does a child think in the same way as I do? How does a child reason about things that happen around him or her?

If you are a parent or have the experience of interacting with young children, you may have pondered over these questions.

At the Early Cognition Lab, we use scientific approaches to investigate the workings of a child’s mind. The Early Cognition Lab is directed by Assistant Professor Setoh Pei Pei from the Nanyang Technological University. Our research examines what young children know about people and their interactions. We ask questions like: Do children think you should share your resources equally with others? Do children think you should offer help to someone in need? How do children’s ideas about intelligence affect their motivation? Another focus of our research is on how children perceive, encode, and recognize different kinds of faces.

Because young children are not adept at vocalizing their thoughts, we design simple experiments that bring out their natural reactions and observe their non-verbal behaviors instead of relying on verbal responses. For example, children in our studies watch live puppet shows or photos and videos involving people. We are interested in their looking patterns, how they distribute toys to puppets, and how they choose among faces displayed on a tablet.

Over the past two years, the Early Cognition Lab has conducted multiple studies with children. In the next section, we highlight some of our research findings.

Past Research – Who will you like to play with?

Singapore is a multi-ethnic society with a high level of social integration between the diverse ethnic groups. Children in Singapore are exposed to, and learn to appreciate, a diversity of people and cultures. Given our unique social environment, how do children in Singapore perceive and encode information about different faces?

Preschoolers played a simple tablet game that involved matching faces with smile and frown cartoons. This is known as the Implicit Association Test. The speed at which the child matches faces to either smile or frown cartoons indicates the strength of positive associations with those faces.

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Next, children completed a few tasks that comprised choosing future interaction partners and expressing an interest to befriend children in photos.

Children held positive associations and expressed a social preference for faces of their ethnicity. This finding could be attributed to the familiarity effect: Children see faces of their ethnicity with greater frequency, among important people such as their parents, relatives, teachers, and friends, and have more opportunities to engage in positive interactions with them.

Future Directions

Children’s ideas about intellectual ability

What ideas do children have about intellectual talents and creativity, and how do these beliefs affect their interests, motivation and achievement in math and science? We join forces with the Science Centre to find out! If you have a child between 9-12 years of age, please drop us an email at babylab@ntu.edu.sg to participate in this study! Children will get a certificate of participation, and also free entry into the Science Centre!

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