Children’s Memory for Affectively Negative Information about the Biological World
Authors:Devin Shermer, Andrea Villalobos
Mentor:Andrew Shtulman, Associate Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science, Occidental College
Conceptual change is the reanalysis and restructuring of pre-existing core concepts required to understand difficult new concepts. One such concept is evolution; even adults have robust misconceptions about evolutionary change. A contributing factor to these misconceptions is the bias of a benevolent ‘balance of nature,’ where there is just enough food and predators and prey to keep the system in equilibrium, and negative aspects such as scarcity and extinction are underestimated. Perhaps this bias is passed from adults to their children, as parents are an important source of information for their children when it comes to learning concepts about both biological and unobservable information. Our question was whether parents influence their children’s concept of affectively negative information, such as predation and competition, when explaining biological facts about animals. Children were read a book of animal facts by their parents, and then were interviewed about what facts they remembered and whether they would generalize a negative (e.g. competition or predation) and a neutral (e.g. habitat or social structure) fact about three of the animals. Children remembered more negative facts than neutral facts, and generalized more neutral facts than negative facts. When parents elaborated more on the negative facts than the neutral facts, through questions and comments, it correlated with the children remembering more of the negative facts. However the children’s generalization pattern did not correlate with the parent’s elaborations. This may suggest that parents affected the children’s memory, which in turn influenced how they generalized. Or it may suggest that children hold a theory of the ‘balance of nature,’ which guides them to treat negative behaviors as unique to a species. Parent’s isolation of negative behaviors strengthens children’s presupposition of a benevolent nature, which may contribute to an impediment to learning the theory of evolution.