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Can our kids cope with advertising?

In developmental psychology, we often try to find qualitatively distinct differences as a person develops over time. We have a habit of looking for stages that occur but it’s not as if one day a child is crawling, then the next day they are sprinting across the floor. Development is more gradual than that, of course. Sometimes these changes can feel rather sudden, especially when you are a relative who visits a young child. Each time you see them they will be doing something that they could not possibly have been able to do the last time you saw them.

Of particular note, I wanted to discuss ideas about the “theory of mind.” This term is a bit strange, but it essentially means your ability to see that other people’s desires, motivation, and understanding are different from your own (Premack & Woodruff 1978). A few studies have looked into when this develops, and when it fully matures.
*Goldfish study*
Rapochli and Gopnik (1997) devised an interesting study using Goldfish crackers, and broccoli. After allowing the child to sample a bit of each food, the experimenter could easy establish which food the child preferred. The experimenter would then indicate which food they preferred (randomly assigned, either same as the child or different than the child). They indicated this by eating  one of the foods and saying “yum!” then eating the other and saying, “Yuk!” The experimenter would then hold out their hand, as if expecting the child to hand them something. Keep in mind, this child is 12 to 18 months old, and in most cases could not effectively communicate through speech. However, the child would give the experimenter the food which the experimenter said he or she preferred, regardless of the child’s own preference. This occurred more frequently in the 18 month-old group
Why is that finding important? If the child did not have a functional theory of mind, the child would assume that the experimenter likes the same foods that the child does. However, the children in this study would give the experimenter whichever food they indicated as being preferable. This must mean that the child was able to ignore their own preferences and act based on someone else’s preferences. While this is a great foundation, theory of mind still has some way to go before it is completely matured.
“Contemporary theory of mind testing”
As we develop, gain language skills and become a bit more sophisticated, we have an easier time understanding that other people have their own motivations, goals, and preferences. The goldfish study showed that understanding of preferences can manifest itself early, but to fully appreciate another’s point of view requires a bit more development. As children approach 5-6 years old, they are able to successfully pass a simple test about perspectives. The example below normally covers this kind of simple story, and will typically involve puppets to help give identity to each character.
“Molly and Jan are sisters who live in the same house. Molly comes home from the store with a chocolate bar. Molly wants to save it for later, so Molly places it in her desk. Molly leaves her room to go check the mail. Jan sneaks into Molly’s room and wants to play a trick on Molly. Jan takes the chocolate from the desk and hides it under Molly’s bed. Molly returns from checking the mail and decides she wants to eat her chocolate. Where is the first place Molly will look?”
If the child has a developed theory of mind, they will say, “Molly will look in her desk, because that is the last place she had seen it.” If the child does not have a fully matured theory of mind, they will say, “Molly will look under her bed, because that’s where the chocolate is.” This theory of mind is highly related to errors of transference noted by Piaget. If you take a tall slim glass, and a short stout glass, fill each with 8 oz of water, younger children will assume the tall slim glass has more water in it because it is taller. The child has trouble focusing on multiple factors at a time, and tends to focus on the most salient feature when comparing things. Thus, without a fully matured theory of mind, the child is only able to focus on the most salient feature of the situation – where the chocolate is, instead of the more correct feature – the last place the actor in question had seen it. Whether this is due to a qualitative change in the brain, or if it is a matter of the speed of processing and capacity of the brain could be debated. However, when we look at individuals within the autism spectrum (Asperger’s) we see that even with an otherwise fully matured brain, their theory of mind never matures. Adults who can read, do complex tasks, become authors, programmers, or most anything can fail this test if they have Asperger’s. This disorder does not impair intelligence, just social functioning. So we can see that as brain capacity and speed increases, it does not create the ability to process social information. It must be a distinctly different beast (most likely interacting with the right temporal parietal junction, but let’s not get bogged down in neuroanatomy).
Theory of mind and advertising
As discussed above, we can see that children develop a theory of mind over time. While their theory of mind is developing, would we expect them to be especially vulnerable to advertising? Absolutely.
Moses and Baldwin (2005) help break down the process of understanding advertising, and at what challenges a young child may face.
According to Moses and Baldwin (2005), there are three main tasks a child must overcome in order to effectively cope with advertising material.
1. They must be able to discern the difference between the program they are watching, and an unrelated advertisement.
This step tends to be the most simplistic. The authors state that even the youngest child can tend to tell the difference between one set of programming and another. It’s not as if all the T.V. programming blurs into a giant mush. However, subtle advertising can easily trick the limited cognitive abilities of the youngest children.
2. Does the child understand the intent of the advertiser?
This is were we need to start paying attention to theory of mind. As a child reaches between 4-5 years of age, they typically have a pretty solid theory of mind. A given child may understand intent slightly differently. Some children may understand, “this person wants to sell me this product,” while other children may think, “this person wants to educate me on this stuff!” How many times have you seen children watching television, unsupervised, under that age? It’s pretty common, and I don’t blame anyone for allowing their child to watch T.V. I know I don’t feel all that comfortable with having sophisticated adults attempting to influence my niece or nephew. This leads to the final task.
3. Does the child understand the bias of the advertiser?
The toys always fly through the air, zoom across a track, and shoot lasers that cause massive explosions. The child may not be able to understand that the advertiser will only show you the product in the best possible light, and they might even attempt to mislead you. According to Moses and Baldwin (2005), a child under the age of 7 is probably not able to truly cope with advertising content. I know we allow children to watch television well before this time, but what actions should be taken?
The authors suggest that we should not allow advertisers to target these populations. These advertisers hire people with degrees, or even a psychologist to help get their message across to these children who do not have a fully developed theory of mind. Theoretically, this child would be defenseless to influence techniques that would be used by a professional. Imagine Cialdini’s 7 factors of influence being used on a 5 year old. They don’t stand a chance.This level of exploitation can start to seem sickening if you imagine a psychologist putting Piaget’s theory of development to work on advertising schemes. To this end, the authors urge legislation to be passed to protect our children.

As you can see, understanding children’s development helps us articulate the true ethical concerns of advertising to protected populations. I know television is part of the American culture, but we keep seeing how much of a negative effect it has on children. Not all T.V. is bad, but for it to be a positive experience, it requires the guidance of a parent. The parent must sit with the child, watch the program with the child, and actively engage with the child and the story. Ask the child what is going on, what is the conflict, why it is a problem, and what they expect to occur. This is just an example of interacting with educational programming, but without this interaction from the parent, it has no positive effect at all.
You wouldn’t let a stranger on the streets try to push merchandise on to your kids would you? Then don’t let it happen in your home!
Feel free to read Moses and Baldwin (2005) here!

Premack, D. & Woodruf, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a  theory of mind? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1, 515-526.

Repacholi, B. M., & Gopnik, A. (1997). Early reasoning about desires: Evidence from 14- and 18-month-olds. Developmental Psychology, 33, 12-21.

1 Comment

  1. […] lack the ability to fully control their own behavior. As children do not have a fully developed Theory of Mind, it’s absurd to use martial discipline to change their […]

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