Lagattuta Explores Children's Grasp of Mental Time Travel

By Ben Hinshaw - On February 25, 2016, Kristin H. Lagattuta delivered an ISS Noon Lecture entitled "Do Prior Experiences Shape Future Expectations? Children’s Developing Intuitions About How the Mind Generalizes from the Past." In her fascinating talk, Dr. Lagattuta suggested that, as they age, people grow less inclined to make the "cognitive effort" required to approach each human encounter with an open mind.

Studies of the way people deal with future uncertainty have concluded that adults typically base their expectations on what has occurred in the past. This ability to bridge past, present and future, important for risk assessment and decision making, has been termed “mental time travel.”

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Dr. Lagattuta’s research at the Mind Emotion Development Lab focuses primarily, she explained, on “how children come to think about people in relation to their internal mental states—how they feel, what they want, what they believe, what they think about, what they’re remembering.” Such knowledge is crucial to forming social relationships, as well as to understanding one’s own actions, emotions and decisions.

Presenting recent work from the lab, Dr. Lagattuta’s talk explored the age at which children begin to understand that people’s past experiences carry forward in time to shape how they later feel, think, and make decisions—to understand, that is, the power of mental time travel.

Looking to the recent past

In an experiment (published in Child Development by Dr. Lagatutta and Liat Sayfan in 2013), adults and children aged between four and ten were asked to predict the thoughts, emotions and decisions of characters who re-encountered an agent with whom they’d had multiple experiences in the past.

To illustrate the methodology, Dr. Lagattuta shared video footage, complete with eye-tracking technology (designed to measure how subjects process, coordinate and prioritize information in real time), that showed a six-year-old female responding to a “PN” scenario—one in which a positive interaction was followed by a negative. Other scenarios (PP, NN and NP) were also tested.

Although even 4- to 5-year-olds varied their mental state judgments in line with past experience (predicting more positive thoughts, emotions, and decisions for characters in PP vs. NP vs. PN vs. NN trials) older children and adults made even wider distinctions. All age groups also exhibited a recency bias—a tendency to place greater emphasis on the most recent event when reasoning about the future. This was evident in their eye-movement patterns (more looking at recent past events, especially when negative) and in their verbal responses. The strength of this recency bias increased with age.

The conclusion, Dr. Lagattuta said, was that both children and adults predict the future with the past in mind, but that not all past events are equal. Recent past events, especially when negative, carry more weight when forming expectations for the future, and this bias strengthens with age.

Generalizing worry

In a similar test, children and adults responded to scenarios in which a character encountered a stranger similar in appearance to an agent with whom they had previously interacted (again, trials included NN, PP, NP, and PN). Eight- to 10-year-olds and adults proved more likely than younger children to assume that characters would generalize from their prior experiences when thinking about this new person.  Indeed, Dr. Lagattuta said, even in the case of increasingly dissimilar strangers, older children and adults more often presumed that people’s minds will still use the past to predict the future. 

To learn what happened when the experiment was expanded to include three scenarios and encounters with machines; discover why Dr. Lagattuta believes researchers often underestimate developmental advances in social reasoning during middle childhood and adulthood; and see her answer questions about gender differences, animals, and stereotyping, be sure to watch the video below: 

Kristin H. Lagattuta is a professor of psychology and a core member of the Center for Mind and Brain at UC Davis. Learn more about Dr. Lagattuta and her research at her faculty webpage.