"We often think of children as deficient in many skills when compared to adults. But sometimes what seems like a deficiency can actually be an advantage. That's what we found in our study. Children are extremely curious and they tend to explore everything, which means their attention is spread out, even when they're asked to focus. That can sometimes be helpful," said Vladimir Sloutsky, co-author of the study.
The results have important implications for understanding how education environments affect children's learning, he said.
The research participants were shown a computer screen with two shapes, with one shape overlaying the other. One of the shapes was red, the other green. The participants were told to pay attention to the shape of a particular colour (say, the red shape).
Adults performed slightly better than children at noticing when the target shape changed, noticing it 94 per cent of the time compared to 86 per cent of the time for children.
"But the children were much better than adults at noticing when the non-target shape changed. Children noticed that change 77 per cent of the time, compared to 63 per cent of the time for an adult. What we found is that children were paying attention to the shapes that they weren't required to. Adults, on the other hand, tended to focus only on what they were told was needed," Sloutsky said.
A second experiment involved the same participants. In this case, participants were shown drawings of artificial creatures with several different features. They might have an "X" on their body, or an "O"; they might have a lightning bolt on the end of their tail or a fluffy ball.
Participants were asked to find one feature, such as the "X" on the body among the "Os." They weren't told anything about the other features. But children were substantially more accurate than adults (72 per cent versus 59 per cent) at remembering features that they were not asked to attend to, such as the creatures' tails.
"The point is that children don't focus their attention as well as adults, even if you ask them to. They end up noticing and remembering more," Sloutsky said.
Sloutsky said that adults would do well at noticing and remembering the ignored information in the studies if they were told to pay attention to everything. But their ability to focus attention has a cost they miss what they are not focused on.
The ability of adults to focus their attention and children's tendency to distribute their attention more widely both have positives and negatives.