Young children’s instinct for group membership can be exploited to boost their learning performance. That’s according to a new study that recalls classic social psychology research conducted in the 1970s. Back then Henri Tajfel showed a darker side to this group mentality. In his “minimal group” studies, schoolboys were divided into two groups based merely on their preference for one of two artists. The arbitrary groups thus formed, the boys showed immediate bias against peers not in their group.
In the new research, Allison Master and Gregory Walton allocated 55 children (average age 4 years; 32 boys) to one of three conditions before testing them on a challenging jigsaw puzzle. In one condition, the children were told that they were members of “the Blue Group” that did puzzles. Although they were alone, the children donned a blue t-shirt, sat on a blue chair, and the puzzle box had a blue sticker on it. They were further told that children in the “the Green group” do other things.
In the first of two control conditions, the children were told that they were “child number 3” and that “child number 3 does puzzles”. They too had a t-shirt and other paraphernalia that signalled their new individual identity. In the second control condition, the children simply worked at the puzzle with no mention of groups or identities.
Even though they worked alone and there was no history to their group membership, the children in the Blue Group condition were fired up by their belonging to the group that does puzzles – they persisted 29 per cent longer on the puzzle than children in the “child number 3” condition and 35 per cent longer than children not allocated to a group or individual identity.
Master and Walton believe the children in the Blue Group condition readily internalised the purpose of the group – to do puzzles – in a way that didn’t happen for kids in the the individual puzzle identity condition, or the no-intervention control condition.
To test this, a second study with 39 more children (average age 4 years; 18 boys) was similar to the first, but this time some of the children were allocated to a Blue Group that does puzzles, while others were allocated to a Blue Group without any mention of the group existing to do puzzles. Children in the Blue Group “that does puzzles” persisted for 39 per cent longer than the children in the purposeless Blue Group, thus reinforcing the idea that the benefit comes from readily internalising the group’s stated raison d’être.
A third and final study followed a similar procedure but a word learning task was substituted for the puzzle task (it involved learning the names for four alien objects). The children led to believe they belonged to a group that “looks at alien toys and learns their names” later outperformed by 38 per cent other children who’d been told they were the child who “looks at alien toys and learns their names”.
“These findings underscore the importance of group identity for young children’s motivation and learning,” the researchers said. “They suggest that children readily develop socially shared motivations with in-groups and that this shared motivation can lead children to put forth sustained effort on challenging academic tasks and to learn more from such tasks even in the absence of other children or members of their group.”
Master, A., and Walton, G. (2013). Minimal Groups Increase Young Children’s Motivation and Learning on Group-Relevant Tasks. Child Development, 84 (2), 737-751 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01867.x