Why young children are more optimistic
Young children are more optimistic than adolescents, which stems from not learning enough from bad outcomes, finds a new study by University College London (UCL) researchers.
We hope that future research will shed light on whether developmental differences in how children lose their hyper-optimism may relate to the risk of mental illness symptoms.Dr Tobias Hauser
2018 Emerging Leaders Prize winner
Using innovative technology, scientists including our 2018 Emerging Leaders Prize winner, Dr Tobias Hauser, have revealed new insights into how optimism levels change throughout childhood and what influences this.
Results published in the the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General found that constant exposure to bad outcomes causes hyper-optimism to dwindle as a child grows up, as they learn from negative experiences and become more realistic.
The study involved 108 participants: children aged 8-9 and adolescents aged 12-13 and 16-17.
“We asked our study participants to play a game to gather treasures from different planets,” said Johanna Habicht, study author from UCL.
“They had to learn how good these planets were and tell us how much they would earn. We found that children were much more optimistic than adolescents.”
To understand what caused this hyper-optimism in the youngest children, the researchers used computational models to analyse how the participants learned as they progressed through the game.
Dr Hauser said: “We used mathematical models to analyse the participants’ learning – showing that children are hyper-optimistic, because they learn much less from bad outcomes."
"Whilst children learn as much as adolescents when something good happens, they tend to ignore when things are not as good as they hoped.”
Dr Hauser says he believes these mechanisms, and the resulting hyper-optimism, may be useful for children to pursue ambitious goals and to overcome obstacles along the way.
A lack of hyper-optimism may even contribute to depression, as previous studies have found that optimism may benefit mental health, physical health, and professional development.
He said: “We know that depression often emerges during adolescence, exactly during the time when those rose-tinted glasses are fading."
"We hope that future research will shed light on whether developmental differences in how children lose their hyper-optimism may relate to the risk of mental illness symptoms.”
Using Medical Research Foundation funding, Dr Hauser developed the 'Brain Explorer' smartphone app to enable more members of the public to contribute to neuroscience research. By playing the games, people can contribute to research into the development of mental health problems.
Dr Hauser explains: “Brain Explorer allows everyone to contribute to science by playing fun games on their phone and to help us better understand the causes of mental disorders. Anyone can download the app and to contribute to science.”
Find the app in Apple and Android app stores, or on www.brainexplorer.net
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