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Piaget and attention

The way young minds work has been the focus of volumes of research. One of the most famous developmental scientists, Jean Piaget, changed the way we thought about human development. Some people thought that the infant mind was simply a slower version of the adult brain that had less capacity. Piaget challenged this notion by showing developmental stages. The stages noted qualitatively different types of functionality in the child, not just the ability to process things more quickly, or remember more information.

One of my favorite Piagetian tasks is “conversion.” This task highlights a child’s inability to focus on anything but the most salient feature of an observation. That is, whatever single feature appears to be the most informative to them will be the single feature to which they attend. Many of us have seen this task before, and some of us may remember thinking this way when we were children as well.

The video below shows this effect in action in two ways – with liquids, and coins.

In the first test, the child focuses on the most salient feature (to them) –  the height of the glass. Even though they knew the two starting objects had an identical amount of liquid in them, they still think the skinny glass had more liquid after the switch.

The coin task is of particular interest, as it shows that even when the child can count the coins, they still focus on the most salient feature – the length of the row of coins, instead of the number of coins.

Another test of interest, once again by Piaget, is something called the “A not B” error, which is present in children, and older adults. The video below depicts a typical “A not B” test.

The child is being reminded of the rules of the task each time, regardless of whether they are correct or not. At first the child is tasked with sorting by color, then in the second phase, the child is asked to sort by shape. The child fails to sort by shape, even when they are able to verbally identify where it should go (the child repeats the correct placements at 4:18, but still places them in the wrong sections).

While I find these effects to be fascinating, I have wondered if these effects are not actually just related to attention- based errors.

Attention can be seen as an on-going process of engagement and disengagement. Failure to engage with something typically means it was something you couldn’t sense (I can’t pay attention to something I cannot see, hear, smell, etc.) or it means you did not disengage yet from the last item of interest.

Take the child for example. They are engaged with the idea that that two cups of water are the same because they are the same height – the most salient feature. Then, one becomes taller, and they cannot disengage from this idea, so they continue to use the rule.

With A/B errors, the child engages with the idea that blue cards are sorted together and red cards are sorted together. As the rules change, they do not disengage from the old rules.

Now I’m not suggesting that it’s due solely to the attention system, but the attention system appears to be involved. This brings us to the anterior cingulate – the home of the conflict monitor. The conflict monitor allows you to inhibit competing impulses, and choose to attend to the things that matter the most. Imagine the “Stroop Task.” You must look at the words “RED, GREEN, YELLOW” but they are in different color fonts than their names.






While this task isn’t hard, it takes you longer to say the font colors, than it would to simply read the words.

To do this task correctly, you inhibit the most salient response. That is, when you see words, you typically read them, but now you must inhibit your reading response because font COLOR is of more importance. It is also where we experience a part of cognitive dissonance. As we begin to feel the dissonance, we will have to inhibit the incorrect responses and go with the ones we think are most correct.

I’d imagine the conflict monitor  in these children has not fully developed, thus they feel little to no dissonance when they are stating one rule, but following another. It’s hard to say how it would pan out, but I’d wager that attention processes and the anterior cingulate (conflict monitor) plays a major role in these Piagetian tasks. I doubt I’ll have access to a group of test subjects and an fMRI anytime soon, but I still like to share my opinion on the matter.

That said, we should not be tempted to oversimplify these effects. Piaget was right when he focused on distinct qualitative differences between each developmental stage. While I do believe attention and the conflict monitor play a major role, it probably does not define the difference between adults and children!


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