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Children First Learn About Competition at the Age of Four

Update Date: Aug 15, 2013 02:29 PM EDT
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Competition has been a human trait since the beginning of time. People instinctively compete for mates, food, territory and now, other life variables such as jobs and items. Even though competition might appear to be a natural behavior, it is a behavior that needs to be learned based on the environment and cultural beliefs. In a new study, researchers reported that children first learn about competition at around the age of four.

For this study, the research team composed of Johannes Roessler from the Department of Philosophy at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom and Beate Priewasser and Josef Perner from the Department of Psychology at the University of Salzburg in Austria recruited 71 children. The children were between the ages of three and five. They were put through two different experiments. The first one tested the children's ability to understand false beliefs. The second one tested the children's understanding of other people's goals.

In the first experiment, Roessler explained, "In the classical 'false belief task', children watch a boy put some chocolate in a drawer and go off to play. Someone comes along and moves the chocolate to the cupboard. The experimenter then asks children where the boy will go to retrieve his chocolate. Children under the age of 4 tend to predict that he will go straight to the cupboard, because that is where the chocolate now is-even though the boy had no means of knowing this!"

The researchers found that for older children, they predicted that the boy would still go into the drawer to look for his chocolate. The older children were able to understand that even though the chocolate was moved, the boy was not aware of it and thus, he could not know that the chocolate was no longer in the drawer. In the second experiment, the researchers gave each child a vertical stand that they need to fill up with beads in order to win. Each child gets a turn throwing a die. The number that shows up is the number of beads that they are allowed to put into their stands. The children can pick to take beads from a basket, which was considered the neutral option or they can take beads from other children's stands, which would indicate competition.

The researchers found that children who did not pass the false belief experiment test also did not tend to poach from other children. These children were younger and could not understand competition and why taking beads from other children would benefit themselves while slowing down others. The younger children also did not understand retaliation. When their beads were taken, they did not start to take other people's beads.

"The 'four years of age' rule isn't hard and fast. What's important is not the absolute age of the child, but the fact that those who do not understand how intentional action can be informed by false beliefs also tend to struggle with the idea of competition," Roessler said according to Medical Xpress.

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology

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