Why am I having trouble counting when my friends aren’t? Is it because I’m not smart?
How come Mom quit her job to help with remote school and Dad kept working? Is her work less important, or are women just better teachers?
Children are constantly making sense of the differences they observe. Understanding how they do that is at the heart of New York University’s Cognitive Development Lab, headed by cognitive scientist Andrei Cimpian, PhD. In experiment after experiment, Cimpian finds that children, like adults, default to what Cimpian calls “shortcuts, ”or snap judgments. Often these shortcuts explain differences in terms of internal or inherent qualities of people or things, such as, “Some kids learn to read easily because they’re smart.” Cimpian and his colleagues’ research finds such explanations can have real-life consequences, shaping everything from whether a student likes school, to whether a child considers inequalities fair, to what games a preschooler plays. Research shows even infants use some shortcuts.
Cimpian talked with Early Learning Nation about the benefits and pitfalls of shortcuts, and how parents and educators can help children productively reframe the stories they tell about the world. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
KENDRA HURLEY: What exactly are shortcuts and what purpose do they serve?
ANDREI CIMPIAN: Kids try to make sense of differences they see, such as why some kids arrive at kindergarten knowing more than others. But these are very complex things to explain, and children often don’t have the full information to operate on. So that’s when kids, and also adults, fall back on shortcuts. In this case, a shortcut is a sort of “quick and dirty” explanation that helps them understand. Shortcuts help to simplify the very complex world, but they overlook important information.
Often shortcuts are innocuous, but when applied to societal patterns—for example, “why are there more men in science than women?”—they can lead kids to conclude things like, “men are better at science than women,” or, “women don’t like science.” That can lead to replication of this pattern, because if you’re a girl, you might think, “Science is not for me.” If you’re a boy, you might think the girls in your science class don’t belong there.
In the classroom, shortcuts can deepen achievement gaps. Kids might decide some students do better than others in school because of something inherent about them, like they’re smarter or harder working. One study found that if kids who were initially lower-achieving explain differences in these kinds of fixed terms, those kids think they don’t have what it takes to do well in school, and end up doing less well as a result. Then initial gaps may increase over the course of schooling.
But research also suggests that if kids think other kids are doing better because of qualities that aren’t an inherent part of them, like because the other kids have more resources at home, that can help level the playing field.
HURLEY: Your research found that giving kids context for differences can make them want to make things more equal. Can you talk about that?
CIMPIAN: We showed kids two groups they weren’t familiar with: the Blarks and the Orps. We told them these groups are from another planet, and said the Blarks have a lot more money than the Orps, and we asked kids, who were as young as 4, “Why do you think that is?” Usually their explanations looked to features of the groups themselves, like, “The Blarks have more money than the Orps because they’re smarter and work harder.” The more a kid was likely to generate these internal, inherent explanations for the differences, the more likely they were to also say the disparity was fair, that the Blarks deserved to have more money than the Orps, and nothing should be done to change this.
But when we gave them an explanation that was more complex and had a history to it, like the Blarks live in a place with more jobs, or where they found gold, the children thought it was less fair they had more money and were more likely to endorse changing the way things were. In other words, giving kids the bigger context for inequalities between groups is important for motivating change.
A shortcut is a sort of “quick and dirty” explanation that helps them understand. Shortcuts help to simplify the very complex world, but they overlook important information.
HURLEY: The idea that understanding the historical reason for inequalities motivates people to want change has big implications for current debates around teaching the history of racism and inequality in the U.S. But I’m guessing some people would also ask: What about for the higher-performing kids? Isn’t thinking of oneself as being inherently talented or special a good thing?
CIMPIAN: Not necessarily. We did an experiment where we asked 4-year-olds to draw, then praised them by saying either, “You did a good job drawing,” or, “You’re such a good drawer.” We found the “you’re such a good drawer” praise felt good to kids in the moment, but when those children later made a mistake when drawing, like if they forgot to draw ears on a cat, they reacted more negatively. Because they assumed their initial success was due to some special talent they had, that is then threatened by a later failure. A mistake becomes more personal, and they’re less motivated afterwards. If they’re asked whether they want to draw again tomorrow after a mistake, they’re less likely to want to than the kids who were simply told, “You did a good drawing,” which is still a praising statement, but doesn’t have the implication of “you succeeded because there’s something special about you.”
You want to encourage kids to have a growth mindset, where they learn from failure.
HURLEY: You found that by age 6, kids have already developed different kinds of ideas about the intelligence of girls and boys. Tell us about that.
CIMPIAN: We told young kids stories about unnamed individuals whose gender was not apparent from the story. For example, we told them about a person at the place where I work who was “really, really smart. This person can figure things out very quickly, much quicker than everyone else,” and so on. Then we showed them pictures of individuals they weren’t familiar with and asked them to guess who the person described was. At the age of 5, both boys and girls tended to pick people of the same gender as themselves as the “really, really smart” person in the story. But at age 6, girls stopped doing that and became less likely than boys to pick individuals of their own gender as being “really, really smart.”
We found this bias has real consequences. We exposed children to unfamiliar games and varied whether the games were described as for kids “who are really, really smart” or for kids who “try really, really hard.” They were the exact same games that were just described differently in this way. For 5-year-olds, there was no difference, but at the age of 6, when we portrayed the game as being for kids “who are really, really smart,” girls were less likely to want to play.
This might apply to the real-world context where girls get the sense that, say, math and science are for kids “who are really, really smart,” which is what a lot of adults believe. Then they may see these activities as not being for them. So our research suggests that aspects of the gender gap in STEM fields stretch all the way back to early elementary school.
HURLEY: How can parents and teachers of young children disrupt these kinds of biases from forming in young children and encourage a growth mindset?
CIMPIAN: Role models who come from similar backgrounds can be important for kids. So can providing kids with explanations for differences. For teachers, that might be telling kids it’s important to remember that all kids in a class are coming from different places, that some kids might have more books at home and go to museums often because their parents can afford to. That could be something even a 4-year-old could understand.
These kinds of explanations can be very effective in combatting fixed beliefs. In one study of 5th and 6th graders, researchers gave half of the kids thorough training with a particular task. The other kids received less training. Then researchers put the children all together in a class and let them observe that some of their peers knew the task a lot better than others. Without providing any additional explanation, the kids who were doing less well in this context became demotivated and kind of shut down. But once researchers gave them the explanation for why other kids were doing better—that half of the class received more training—those differences went away. That’s a powerful illustration of how pulling back the curtain and revealing reasons behind differences in the classroom can make for a more even playing field.
Kendra Hurley is a journalist and researcher whose work has fueled reform and helped shape policy in education, child welfare, and homeless services. Her writing has appeared in Bloomberg's CityLab, the Washington Post, the New York Times, USA Today, and others, and her investigation into teen adoption received an award from the Casey Journalism Center. For over a decade, Kendra worked as senior editor and reporter of the families and poverty project at an applied policy institute at The New School. Before that, she launched an online journal covering the youth media field for the Open Society Institute, and worked with teenagers living in foster care for the youth media publication Represent. While coaching the young writers, she received a PASEsetter award for impactful afterschool educators.