The Drive to Win

Board Games
Young children may not be able to cheat others to win, but the competitive drive develops around the age of four.
Bill Branson (Photographer) via Wikimedia Commons

In my family, board games were serious fun. In one particularly hair-raising fight over Memory, my brother nearly came to blows with a family friend after accusing her of whispering answers to her little sister. During an epic argument over a game gin rummy on a ferry, I grabbed my brother’s ballcap and chucked it over the side of the boat. Clearly, comeptition drives us all. But when do wee ones develop the urge to smash their rivals and win at all costs? 

The competitve edge may be connected to the ability to understand and interpret others’ viewpoints, which most kids gain around the age of 4 – but the age isn’t as important as the development of the new interpretive skill, says new research.

Experiments were set up by Beate Priewasser and Josef Perner, psychologists at the University of Salzburg, along with Johannes Roessler, a philosopher at the University of Warwick. The scientists recruited 71 children, between ages three and five. The kids were put through two different experiments – one to test the childrens’ understanding of false beliefs, and the other to test how the kids understood others’ goals.

The false belief test is a psychology classic. In the version used by the researchers, the kids listened to a story about a protagonist who plays with a toy. The character then put it in a storage place and left the room to have a drink or snack in the kitchen. Meanwhile, a sibling transferred the toy to a new container. At this point, children were asked a few comprehension questions, such as Where is the toy now?’, Who placed it there?, and Where did the protagonist place the toy at first?.

The kids are also asked one final — and vital — question: Where is the character going to look first? That question, says Roessler, is the one that reveals whether or not children understand how perspectives influence intentional actions: the protagonist wants to recover the object. “It’s that question that young children tend to get wrong, and around 4 years they tend to get right,” he says. “The younger ones say he’ll make a beeline to the new container.”

The second experiment asked the kids to play a game with dice where they had to collect as many beads as possible. The players could choose to take the beads from a community basket or poach them from another player.

When the two experiments were taken together, the researchers found a shift of behavior around the age of four, when the ability to peer into the mind of another person and comprehend what he or she is thinking is highly correlated with competitive behavior. Moreover, kids who didn’t pass the false-belief test didn’t poach any beads from other players, even when their own winnings were taken away. This lack of retaliation is notable, says Roessler. Girls were nearly just as likely to poach beads from other players as boys.

Although age four is a benchmark, there seems to be quite a bit of individual variation, says Roessler.  “Kids who are 3 ½ and have older siblings will get the competitive aspect earlier.” The resarch was published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

So what exactly happens to mark the shift to a win-centric approach? Roessler says it remains to be a bit of a mystery. “there’s a general shift in children’s’ understanding of perspective across a whole range of domains. But why do they tend to cluster around 4? We don’t really know.” He surmises it has something to do with the development of complex language, which kids use to understand intricate problems.

Roessler points out that there is one group of people who has long recognized that kids below 4 aren’t really into competitive games: board-game makers. “If you think about it, there aren’t really games marketed towards kids that are competitive-based before the age of 4. Marketers do test runs for their games — unsurprisingly I guess — and figured out that young children don’t enjoy competitive games very much.” Game makers may have scooped researchers on this one.

The researchers are now working on an experiment to test little ones’ understanding of another human emotion: sabotage. Roessler believes the development of a competitive drive ties in with kids’ moral growth. “If we are right about children’s understanding of conflicting goals it’s natural to expect that there are connected developments in children’s understanding of moral conflicts,” he says. 


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