Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Forbidden Toy

In the last post I made the argument about the fallibility of adult cognition, which should not be such a watershed. By the same extension, the same behaviors can be seen in children, but once again reproduced and expressed through "smaller means." Exactly what is meant by "larger" and "smaller" is a relative question pertaining to the existential, psychological, and biological differences we associate (via imperfect "adult-centric" cognitive schema) between childhood and adulthood.

One way the action of cognitive dissonance has been observed in children is through an experiment carried out by Aronson and Carlsmith (1963), where children were asked to rank a selection of toys from the ones they found the most tempting to play with to the least tempting. After they were ranked, the experimenter would take a toy the child liked and leave the child alone with the toy in a room. Half the child subjects were told that they would be severely punished if they played with the toy and the other half were told the punishment would be temperate.

Obviously they weren't going to punish the children. Later the experimenter would remove the punishment, saying that there would be no repercussions from playing with the toy, and the children in the moderate punishment condition were less likely to play with the toy, even though they now understood there'd be no punishment. Likewise, the severe punishment group were more likely to play with the toy once the punishment was lifted. And when asked why, the children in the moderate condition expressed more disinterest in the toy, even though at one time they had ranked it as one of the most interesting to them. The children in the severe punishment condition expressed even higher interest in the toy.

The conclusion from this study represents a concept called overjustification. The children in the severe condition had what is called a good "external reason" for not playing with the toy, because they believed they'd be punished severely if the did, even though they still found the toy as desirable. So when the punishment was lifted they were more likely to play with it. The children in the non-severe condition had an "insufficient external reason" for not playing with the toy, so they had to make up their own justifications against playing with the toy. So they had to convince themselves to find the toy less desirable, and therefore resort to not playing with it.

This overjustification, for the children in the moderate condition, when observed in childhood appears to result in a child's forced compliance (usually with an adult), when observed in adulthood, results in the more extreme forms of social cohesion, shared social schemas, adult compliance (as seen in the Milgram studies), and all sorts of applications in adult social psychology from hierarchial structures like the military, government, how adults formulate their laws and regulations and whether adults resort to obeying them. In the most extreme cases, where psychosis is involved, the formation of cults and shared delusions (Festinger, 1956).

All this goes to show how children react in situations when prophecy fails. As is seen in adults, the stronger their personal conviction, the more they'll seek to justify or amend their conviction retroactively when it doesn't pan out the way their beliefs where structured initially. Any attempt to label children as cognitively handicapped in comparison to an adult is ignoring the similar handicaps that adults commonly have. This will be explored in a follow up on the concept of adultcentrism.