A five-minute chat with preschoolers about their past or future selves helps them make better decisions

Little girl's legs in glitter shoes on snowBy Christian Jarrett

There could be an Arctic blizzard blowing outside for all little Mary cares. The fact is, she’s hot from running around indoors, and no matter how much you try to explain to Mary that her future self – the one that’s about to go walking in the cold – would really appreciate that she put her coat on, Mary, like most kids aged under five, finds it very difficult to step outside of the present and consider her future needs.

While psychologists have already spent a lot of time demonstrating the limitations of young children’s ability to plan for the future, until now they’ve not looked much at whether it’s possible to target these “prospective abilities”. However, a new study in Developmental Psychology has done that, showing that a mere five-minute chat about their recent past or future selves seems to help preschoolers remember to do things in the future, and to “time travel” mentally, so that they make better decisions about their forthcoming needs.

Nadia Chernyak at Boston University and her colleagues allocated 81 children, aged three to five, to one of four training conditions. Each child spent five minutes alone with a researcher talking and thinking about either: their self in the near past (for example, what they’d been doing earlier that day, and drawing a picture of themselves going to bed the previous night); their near future (such as what they would be doing later that day; drawing a picture of themselves going to bed that night); their distant future (such as in the coming weeks, and even when they are adult); or, finally, the present (including drawing a picture of what they were doing “right now”).

After they’d finished their training phase, a different researcher tested each child on their ability to make future-related decisions. Importantly, this researcher didn’t know which training condition each child had completed.

There were several tests, including a “prospective memory” challenge, which involved remembering to remind the researcher to open a box at the end of the tests; a “mental time travel” test that involved selecting appropriate items to take on a trek through the forest or snow; a “temporal discounting task” that gave the opportunity to forego a sticker “right now”, for the chance to have two at the end of the day; and a “saving task” that involved showing patience and waiting for a better play opportunity.

The children who’d spent time thinking about their near-past or future outperformed the others (the children in the distant future and present training conditions) on the prospective memory task and on the mental time travel task. There were no group differences in performance on the temporal discounting task or saving task, perhaps because improvement in these skills takes practice as well as progress in conceptual understanding.

The children in the near-past or future conditions had used more personal pronouns when chatting compared with the other children, and Chernyak and her colleagues think this offers a clue to why these conditions were apparently more beneficial to prospective memory and mental time travel. “Our work suggests that experience communicating and thinking about one’s extended self promotes the ability to make decisions on behalf of the extended self,” the researchers said. They added that children in the distant future condition may have found distant events and talk of their distant selves less self-relevant and more abstract (just as adults do).

It’s not clear how long the apparent benefits of the near-past and future training conditions would last; ideally future studies would also provide some kind of before and after comparison of abilities rather than simply looking for between-group differences in ability after training. Nonetheless, the researchers believe they’ve highlighted an important principle:

“These results have implications for caregivers’ day-to-day interactions with preschoolers,” they concluded, “because even brief conversations with adults can help scaffold, shape, and activate concepts about one’s extended self. Critically engaging young children in conversations where they are provided with opportunities to cognitize, remember, and discuss their extended selves may ultimately help them make future-oriented decisions that benefit those extended selves.”

Training preschoolers’ prospective abilities through conversation about the extended self

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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