Why do children hide by covering their eyes?

A cute mistake that young children make is to think that they can hide themselves by covering or closing their eyes. Why do they make this error? A research team led by James Russell at the University of Cambridge has used a process of elimination to find out.

Testing children aged around three to four years, the researchers first asked them whether they could be seen if they were wearing an eye mask, and whether the researcher could see another adult, if that adult was wearing an eye mask. Nearly all the children felt that they were hidden when they were wearing the mask, and most thought the adult wearing a mask was hidden too.

Next, Russell and his colleagues established whether children think it’s the fact that a person’s eyes are hidden from other people’s view that renders them invisible, or if they think it’s being blinded that makes you invisible. To test this, a new group of young kids were quizzed about their ability to be seen when they were wearing goggles that were completely blacked out, meaning they couldn’t see and their eyes were hidden, versus when they were wearing a different pair that were covered in mirrored film, meaning they could see, but other people couldn’t see their eyes.

This test didn’t go quite to plan because out of the 37 participating children, only 7 were able to grasp the idea that they could see out, but people couldn’t see their eyes. Of these 7, all bar one thought they were invisible regardless of which goggles they were wearing. In other words, the children’s feelings of invisibility seem to come from the fact that their eyes are hidden, rather than from the fact that they can’t see.

Now things get a little complicated. In both studies so far, when the children thought they were invisible by virtue of their eyes being covered, they nonetheless agreed that their head and their body were visible. They seemed to be making a distinction between their “self” that was hidden, and their body, which was still visible. Taken together with the fact that it was the concealment of the eyes that seemed to be the crucial factor for feeling hidden, the researchers wondered if their invisibility beliefs were based around the idea that there must be eye contact between two people – a meeting of gazes – for them to see each other (or at least, to see their “selves”).

This idea received support in a further study in which more children were asked if they could be seen if a researcher looked directly at them whilst they (the child) averted their gaze; or, contrarily, if the researcher with gaze averted was visible whilst the child looked directly at him or her. Many of the children felt they were hidden so long as they didn’t meet the gaze of the researcher; and they said the researcher was hidden if his or her gaze was averted whilst the child looked on.

“… it would seem that children apply the principle of joint attention to the self and assume that for somebody to be perceived, experience must be shared and mutually known to be shared, as it is when two pairs of eyes meet,” the researchers said.

Other explanations were ruled out with some puppet studies. For instance, the majority of a new group of children agreed it was reasonable for a puppet to hide by covering its eyes, which rules out the argument that children only hide this way because they are caught up in the heat of the moment.

The revelation that most young children think people can only see each other when their eyes meet raises some interesting questions for future research. For example, children with autism are known to engage in less sharing of attention with other people (following another person’s gaze), so perhaps they will be less concerned with the role of mutual gaze in working out who is visible. Another interesting avenue could be to explore the invisibility beliefs of children born blind.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Russell, J., Gee, B., and Bullard, C. (2012). Why Do Young Children Hide by Closing Their Eyes? Self-Visibility and the Developing Concept of Self. Journal of Cognition and Development, 13 (4), 550-576 DOI: 10.1080/15248372.2011.594826

–Further reading–
A similar study covered on the Digest in 2006: “If I cover my eyes I’ll be hidden” – how young children understand visibility.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

30 thoughts on “Why do children hide by covering their eyes?”

  1. Interesting. It sounds like it's the concept of 'self' that develops to include the whole body, thought this part is also telling: “This test didn't go quite to plan because out of the 37 participating children, only 7 were able to grasp the idea that they could see out, but people couldn't see their eyes.”

  2. Even younger children frequently hand a paper or book to an adult to see or read when the relevant surface still faces the child. It may take several tries before the child realizes that what the adult sees (the back of the book or paper) is not what they see (the text of the book or the scribble on the paper.) Their difficulties in grasping another's point of view (and its limitations) is seen in older autistic children as well (as in classic experiments done by Uta Frith on “theory of mind” for instance.)

    Most children have experienced the common “peekaboo” game adults play with children, in which the adult hides his/her eyes and peeks over, under, or around his/her hands to suddenly “see” the child (who otherwise remains in plain sight the whole time.) Children are encouraged to do the “peekaboo” thing back to the adult–thus modeling to the child that blocking the eyes with hands (or otherwise) means not seeing the person.

    Visual contact matters to more than humans–visual behavior in animals signals social status and is part of social interaction, and (cross-species) predator/prey relationships. Animals avoiding contact avert gaze or (if actually attempting concealment) may close their eyes or conceal them from what they seek to avoid. Animals use gaze direction to alert conspecifics to danger, and this gaze direction is understood by other species. Given their anatomy, gaze direction may be refined by body position humans don't have (a horse's elevated neck and pricked ears, for instance.) Social animals clearly recognize individuals within a group by sight, so looking at one another is part of ordinary social activity and recognition. For many animals, we don't know how much is mutual gaze–meeting one another's eyes–and how much is visual scanning of the rest of the animal, but it's clear that many social animals do make eye contact multiple times a day.

    So it's not surprising that human use of gaze is even more complex, with multiple uses, which the infant human has to learn. Figuring out what a young child actually thinks is happening when he/she hides his/her eyes, or looks away, isn't easy, because the experiential input is so variable from child to child, from household to household. To give only one example: in some cultures, children are expected to make and hold eye contact when speaking to an adult, but in others making more than brief eye contact with an adult is considered rude and disrespectful. One adult demands “Look at me! Look me in the eye when I'm talking to you and when you answer!” and the other demands “Show some respect! Quit staring at me like you think you're as good as I am!” An adult from either culture will consider children from the other to be rude. (I grew up surrounded by such different cultures, and had to learn which adults to look in the eye, and which adults to look down for.)

  3. All one needs to do to experience this same phenomenon in adults is ride on mass transit in any large city. Most people riding alone tend to avert their gaze or stare at something (book, tablet, phone) while riding. This is a signal that says to me “I don't exist in your world. Leave me alone, I don't see you therefore you don't see me”. Caveat: purely anecdotal on my part.

  4. The same applies in almost any classroom, from elementary school to college. Don't want to answer a question by the instructor? Don't meet his or her gaze. Look down at your notes. It's hoped-for invisibility.

  5. Fascinating! It seems to me that the children might naturally have a view of self that is LOST later in life – speaking specifically of the notion that my body and my self are separate. Also, to comment on the differences between cultural norms regarding eye contact, could it be that they are two approaches to the same “truth”? One culture says “don't look at me, you must remain invisible until/unless you have achieved sufficient status to know and be known”. Another culture says “you must look at me. I am inviting you to be known by me right now. You must not disrespect me by trying to know someone else at the same time.” Both agree that to “see” me/you is to “know” me/you.

    One more thought: I grew up in Nigeria speaking Igbo. In that language, the word for love is “ihunanya”. Transliterated, this means “to see in the (my) eye”. The phrase I love you comes back as “I see you in the (my) eye”. I'm no anthropologist, but I would say these researchers are simply decoding beliefs that humans have held for a while.

  6. Andrew – very fascinating! I think you are on to something.

    From the perspective of someone who likely would have been diagnosed with Aspergers had I been in school now, looking people in the eyes can feel overwhelmingly intimate, invasive and intense. It very much feels like looking at someone's naked “self” and that they are looking at your naked “self”. There is so much of our private world and emotions that is expressed through the eyes. Window to the soul, as they say. Wisdom of toddlers!

  7. I think Emoon's is right in drawing attention to playing peekaboo games with children.

    I had read about the phenomena of children thinking that they were hidden when convering their eyes before having a child myself and my perspective of this research has been changed by spending two years around my baby and other small children. Peekaboo style games are one of the first things everybody seems to play with infants and the “rules” are very clear- it is about meeting eye gaze. When people play this with an infant they cover their own eyes, then reveal them and say “boo”. As the child gets older they learn to do the same thing back with the same rules- it is only preventing eye gaze/ covering the face that counts as hiding.

    I am sure virtually all children in this culture would have had hours and hours of training in this game by the time they were tested in the experiment and this would surely be a significant counfounding variable. I would be very interested to see if extensive previous training can be controlled for. Are there any cultures or groups that are comparable apart from not playing any form of peekaboo games with their infants?

  8. It seems that covering the eyes is somehow different than simply closing/averting them. Despite the description of the study with gaze aversion, most of the children I know cover their eyes with something (hands, blanket) when playing hiding games, rather than just closing their eyes.

  9. “For example, children with autism are known to engage in less sharing of attention with other people (following another person's gaze), so perhaps they will be less concerned with the role of mutual gaze in working out who is visible.”

    Or perhaps children with autism feel more need to “hide”.

  10. I think this study perhaps misses the child's understanding of what the word 'hide' means. You assume their understanding of the word is our understanding. I have never played 'hide and seek' with a child who just covered their eyes. Something is missing from this study.

  11. It is no different for adults. When most people cry, they tend to cover their eyes or look down and/or away. It's a way of protecting yourself. Protecting your vulnerabilities. It's as if you are comforted within your own personal sanctuary…which is within. Eyes are often looked at as “Windows to the soul”. When you cover that “window”, others can not get too intimate by knowing your true self…your soul. The less someone knows about you, the less they can hurt you.
    Think about most autistic children…people are viewed more as objects than fellow human beings. As long as you are treated as an object and not viewed as an equal who has feelings…you can do no harm to them. It's a defense mechanism of sorts. When you combine that with the “crossing of wires” within the brain…you are bound to see discomfort, melt downs, poor attention spans, panic, etc.

  12. They can't run away…. they can't fight…. they can't hide… so they do the next best thing…. they TRY TO HIDE. I don't know about you, but I did it to try to “disappear” due to the vulnerability I felt from being dominated by “giants”. Even if I couldn't BE safe, I could at least IMAGINE I was.

  13. I think that by covering their eyes tends to support Piaget's Theory. He believed that between this age it's their Preoperational stage. Their development isn't established enough to understand the cause and effect in using their imagination. In their mind, and imagination, it seems their thinking “I don't see you, you don't see me”,just like the response of on the bus and we avoid eye contact. Children use their visual sense to understand most things and it's just like “out of sight, out of mind”. Also with their information-processing model of cognitive development, it envolves problem solving, and this is one way their learn.

  14. Does this lead then that if you had two images of a cartoon character, one with the entire body and eyes visible and one with only the eyes visible (think of when the lights go out), that kids will likely conclude that the character is not hiding in either image?

  15. I know that there have been studies that have found that adults wearing sunglasses are less kind/considerate, etc…and even FEEL less kind/compassionate toward others. I think this has something in common with that. Their eyes are “hidden” so THEY are hidden. So they are no longer accountable for their actions.

  16. Perhaps children's definition of what they think hidden actually means is not wholly accurate and therefore when children say that they are hidden, they could simply mean that they can't see anyone and don't have to engage with anyone as is suggested in the study (except perhaps the children do know that they are not actually hidden by our definition of the word)….just a thought…

  17. You may be on to something! (Something that has been discussed and researched perhaps decades ago…)

  18. This is extremely interesting! And has got me thinking!!…….my 3-year-old daughter often puts out her hand to cover OUR eyes to prevent us seeing her – and also when using her toy camera, insists on turning it so that the lens is facing her when she's taking a picture!…………….I'm sure I'll spot lots more examples now!!

  19. What would be the evolutionary advantage? It seems counter intuitive to ignore danger however could a child 'hiding' in this manner better allow a parent to protect their offspring? It brings to mind an ostrich hiding is head in the sand. Could the two behavioural mechanisms be linked?

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  21. Is it normal f that my one year old runs around the house with her hands over her eyes she just started doing it to day.

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