Developing Intelligence

Children are famously bad at considering the future consequences of their actions, but some evidence suggests this criticism is slightly off-the-mark: they may not even comprehend “time” in the same way adults do. A variety of findings from multiple lines of research tentatively support this surprising claim about the limitations of children’s cognition.

Based on the delay of gratification literature, we know that children will reliably choose “less now” rather than “more later” – even at relatively short delays. Children may not be able to adequately represent the value of a future reward as strongly as the value of a present reward, and hence cannot make the same comparison that adults do. Alternatively, children may not accurately predict (and hence, cannot prepare for) their subsequent impulse to receive the reward sooner rather than later. According to these interpretations, children’s failure to delay gratification results from difficulty with representing future states.

Similarly, when presented with a picture of a cold, snowy landscape, nearly 40% of 3-year-olds predict that they would most like to bring along ice cubes rather than a winter coat! Here again, children seem to have difficulty representing or anticipating their potential future state (of being cold), which would have allowed them to select the (rather obvious) correct answer.

But children encounter difficulties on even simpler questions related to time. Around 75% of 3-year-olds cannot correctly report an event that occurred yesterday, nor can they correctly report an event that will occur tomorrow. In fact, similar numbers of children can’t even name something that didn’t occur yesterday, or won’t occur tomorrow – instead, the authors got responses like “I won’t play in the toy room” or “I didn’t do drawing,” verified as incorrect by the parents. So children’s difficulty may not lie so much with the future as with an inability to predict and recall events across time more generally.

One explanation for this difficulty is that children’s thoughts are dominated by their current states, and they cannot represent alternative contexts that may be distant from those current states. One clever study showed that after eating salty pretzels and being presented with the choice of water or more pretzels, children not only prefer water now (as expected), but also predict they will prefer water tomorrow as well! The control group confirms that the majority of children prefer pretzels whenever they’re asked). An interesting question for future research would be to determine children’s perception of their previous preferences – one might even expect them to say that they always did, and always will prefer water!

Consistent with the idea that children’s current internal state dominates their perceptions, other work suggests that children may consistently over-estimate the perceived duration of current events. In other words, they are more likely to say a tone is longer in duration than an identical previous tone (adults tend to show the opposite pattern of results – they’re more likely to say a tone is shorter in duration than an identical previous tone).

A focus of much recent research (excellent summaries at Neurocritic and the Loom) suggests these deficits may be intimately related: it appears that planning & foresight require the same neural structures as those involved in episodic memory, both in humans and other species. So in some ways it is not surprising to find that deficits in recall and prospection go hand in hand: event-based prospective memory (remembering to perform a planned action in response to a certain event) is moderately correlated with recall among 3-year-olds, but not older age groups.

Thus, the root cause of children’s difficulty with foresight, considering the consequences of their actions, and quite possibly a number of other tasks involving time (notably theory of mind tasks, which I’ve discussed previously) may thus be traced not to inhibitory deficits or impulse control, but a failure to apppropriately perceive and comprehend time.

Related Posts:
Spacetime and Linguistic Relativity
Reversing Time: Temporal Illusions
What Matters for Theory of Mind?

Note: There are some notable problems with my theory, including the fact that children are famous “pretenders” and thus are clearly not completely dominated by their current internal context. One (rather unsatisfactory) explanation of this phenomenon is that pretend play may actually reflect “context-drift” rather than the active imposition of a specific distant context on the current internal context.


  1. #1 dcbob
    April 19, 2007

    Very interesting indeed. My Dad promised to take me to the then-new Dulles airport “the day after tomorrow” when I was about 3 1/2 and I distinctly remember noting that I hadn’t thought about it before and being quite taken with the idea that there would, in fact, almost certainly be a day after tomorrow.

  2. #2 CHCH
    April 19, 2007

    That’s a great story; this idea similarly resonates with my own childhood recollections. Time and duration were so different then!

  3. #3 Chull
    April 19, 2007

    Recently I have been of the opinion that there is an actually chemical and/or physical change of brains as we get older that accounts for the way time just speeds right by as we get older and how it Just Dragged when we were young.
    But, maybe it is that the older we get the more we actually comprehend and understand time and thus it is ‘smaller’?
    Not sure how else to put it – but as time goes on I’m sure I will be able to do so better. : )

  4. #4 Moe Szyslak
    April 19, 2007

    That’s why they’re kids, cos they’re stupid!

  5. #5 dsd
    April 19, 2007

    Makes sense. Time is an artificial construct and has no context outside of the current ‘moment.’ Sure we can use all kinds of numbers to ‘prove’ time exists, but again what are numbers? Artificial constructs. Have you ever seen the number one? You’ve seen it’s representative symbol, 1, but never seen it as an entity. Even having one of something is still not ‘one’ the entity. That’s because as a physical object, 1 does not exist. It’s simply a useful notion. Same with all numbers. Same with time. We humans are clever and use all sorts of things (numbers, time, alphabets) to represent other things, typically ideas, expressed in mutually accepted concepts, to explain the world around us. For a child time has no meaning because it has yet to be enculturated, if you will, into accepted ‘grown up’ thought, i.e. those ‘concepts’ or ‘notions’. While our concepts are useful, it could be that a kid’s ‘unadulterated’ reality is really a bit closer to the truth. Time, numbers, alphabets don’t really, as in really, really, exist, so their mind is truely free to explore, wonder, and dream on a level far above our own, as adults. When we ‘grow up’, everything gets a label and fits into nice pidgeon holes. Sure, it makes sense, but suddenly the magic is missing.

  6. #6 Dennis
    April 19, 2007

    Interesting. I’ve thought that this may be the case.

  7. #7 Mark Whybird
    April 19, 2007

    “Children enjoy the present because they have neither a past nor a future.”

    – Jean de la Bruyere, 1645-1696

  8. #8 Ian Lewis
    April 20, 2007

    I remember as a child, representing the notion of days by how many times i would “wake up”. so three days before xmas, santa would be coming not next time i woke up, or next time, but the time after that. I’ve noticed other children do this as I’ve grown up also.

  9. #9 monson
    April 20, 2007

    My 4 year old asks “is it tomorrow?” and prefaces statements with “When I was younger”

  10. #10 MoonShadow
    April 23, 2007

    This phenomenon could be explained by the theory that the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the center for higher cognitive abilities. Because children lack these abilities, thus they lack “foresight” which is one of the few.

    The PFC is the slowest to develop in the human brain (Luciana, Conklin, Hooper & Yorger, 2005). However, i think there is proof that children might be dominated by their current context because a study by Ullsperger and von Cramon (2004) found that the rostral cingulate zone (RCZ) was important for drawing consequences from self-chosen actions, while the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) played a role in drawing consequences from external cues.

    Perhaps their underdeveloped PFC causes this lacking of ability to monitor external cues and makes the RCZ dominate their thought process, thus they are dominated by their current internal context.

    Results from Iowa Gambling Task (IGT) show that decision-making performance increased with age, as performance for 14-17- more than 11-13- more than 9-10-year-olds on the IGT (Hooper, Luciana, Conklin & Yarger, 2004). The researchers theorized that the younger you are, the lesion in the PFC would be greater because you have a more underdeveloped PFC. Maybe because of this, in the case between preference of water and pretzels, when researchers asked them which one they prefered, the children were thinking only of the current situation where they felt very salty. Meaning that children do not think in the context of “normal state” where they would have not had taken pretzels.

    That’s my take on the neurological aspects of this.

  11. #11 CHCH
    April 25, 2007

    Very nice analysis moonshadow! I definitely agree that whatever the explanation of this interesting behavior, the PFC and monitoring processes will have a lot to do with it.

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