4 Psychological Concepts To Consider In Research With Children

Kids Hands Image Courtesy of Alexander Grey & Pexels

“Children are not little adults who simply lack knowledge and experience. Instead, they view the world in a unique way.”

~Jean Piaget


So you’re thinking about doing research with children? That’s exciting! You may already have a research question in mind and are eager to jump into data collection. However, before you start recruiting and enrolling participants, it’s helpful to take a step back and consider your expectations about how children will respond to your research prompts. 


What are some things you should be aware of when beginning research with children? In this post, I share information about how children see and interact with the world differently than adults do. I then highlight a few concepts that are especially useful to be aware of when working with children, such as false memories, social desirability, and reactivity. I also offer some insight on the importance of carefully wording the questions asked during research sessions with children.


#1 Concrete versus abstract ways of thinking

Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist who is well-known for his Theory of Cognitive Development, noted that children are not just “little adults.” He made the case that children do not just have less experience or knowledge about the world than adults do. Instead, he argued that children see and interact with the world in ways that are qualitatively different than adults do. For example, young children see the world in concrete ways whereas adolescents and adults with more experience and expertise think in more abstract ways. For example, when given the hypothetical question ‘How would the world change if we didn’t have thumbs?,’ younger children respond in concrete ways such as saying they would not be able to give a ‘thumbs up’ to indicate something was good. In contrast, adolescents respond more abstractly by comparing one hypothetical situation to another hypothetical situation. Experience has an important impact on this cognitive development from concrete to abstract thinking (e.g., Winstanley, 2022).  When working with children, it’s helpful to remember that they see the world differently – and more concretely – than adults. In research sessions with children in early to middle childhood, avoid or minimize questions or scenarios that require abstract thinking unless child participants have previous experience.


#2 Framing effects

The way information is presented also has an impact on how people respond. The framing effect occurs when people’s decision or response changes based on whether the information is presented in terms of gains or losses. For example, people can be presented with the effect of a medical treatment in a positive frame (i.e., number of people who get better or a survival rate) or a negative frame (i.e., number of people who did not get better or a mortality rate). According to Peng et al. (2013), the way the information is presented to patients has a significant effect on which treatment patients select. There’s some evidence that the framing effect is stronger in adults but does not occur in young children. For example, Reyna and Ellis (1994) found that, unlike adults, preschool-aged children do not show the framing effect. However, children a few years older who are in 2nd grade and 5th grade do show the framing effect. When conducting research about decision-making processes, it is important to be aware of these – and other – developmental changes. Especially when working with older children, consider how you are framing questions or choices. Carefully consider whether you might be influencing the results by whether you frame the question in a positive, gain-focused way or a negative, loss-focused way. 

For more information on mitigating the framing effect, check out our previous blog post on this topic.


#3 False memories

There is an interesting body of literature indicating that people can form false memories. For example, Elizabeth Loftus demonstrated that the wording of a question can alter how people remember an event. In her classic study from 1974, Loftus showed participants a short video of a car accident between two cars. She then asked participants to estimate how fast the cars were traveling at the time of the accident. Participants who were asked How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other? estimated the cars were going significantly faster than participants who were asked How fast were the cars going when they contacted each other? This effect occurred even though everyone saw the same video clip! Although false memories are possible at any age, in general, children are more susceptible to suggestions than adults. In other words, during an interview, children are more likely to take information an interviewer suggests and incorporate into their responses than adults. Therefore, when doing research with children, it is critical that researchers put careful thought into their questions to avoid introducing inaccurate information. It is better to ask open-ended questions rather than give specific answers to choose between.


It is also valuable to have a way to verify the accuracy of children’s reports. Elizabeth Loftus shares information about a study in which participants falsely reported meeting Bugs Bunny at Disney. However, this event is impossible because Bugs Bunny is a Warner Brothers character rather than a Disney character and therefore would not be at Disney. And yet, after seeing an advertisement for Disney that featured Bugs Bunny, some participants confidently shared details about the time they met Bugs Bunny. This research helps two important points to consider when doing research with children. First, be careful not to introduce false information that children may incorporate into their memories. Second, have a way to verify children’s reports. One way to be able to verify reports is to have a consistent protocol where children go through a task during the research session rather than relying on children’s own memories.


#4 Confirmation bias.

When conducting research with children, similar to doing research with adults, it is also helpful to be aware of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias occurs when people actively search for information that matches their current thoughts, beliefs, or expectations. In fact, people will often devalue or dismiss information that is contradictory to their current thoughts, beliefs, or expectations in order to preserve their current perspective. When working with children, it may be tempting to ask concrete, closed-ended questions, especially given children’s concrete way of thinking. However, one problem with closed-ended questions is that they are more likely to contain leading, directive information that may be in-line with your perspective as a researcher (e.g., the user is expected to click this button after a particular part of the task) but not match what the child would do (e.g., they might explore another feature that captures their attention instead). It’s important to ask questions that will support children behaving in ways they naturally would. For example, it is stronger to ask “What would you do next?” or “Tell me what you’re looking at” rather than asking “Do you want to click one of the buttons now?” 


It is possible that you may have expectations about whether children will be able to complete the research task or expectations about how they’ll complete the task. The confirmation bias occurs when you make note of things that confirm your expectations such as interpreting a child being distracted as an indicator that the task is too difficult to understand. The questions you ask to redirect their attention to the task can influence children’s behavior in ways that can potentially confirm your expectations. Asking open-ended questions provides more opportunity for the child to behave naturally because of the open-ended, broader nature of the question whereas closed-ended questions tend to have a more directive, limited opportunity for how to respond. 


According to Powell, Hughes-Scholes, and Sharman (2012), researchers with stronger interview skills were less likely to show confirmation bias in their research interviews. Powell et al. specifically noted that researchers who were less skilled tended to ask fewer open-ended questions and more leading questions compared to more skilled interviewers. Continuing to develop your interview skills and using more open-ended questions can reduce the likelihood that your expectations may alter the child’s behavior. Before starting research with children, be sure to develop strong interview skills. Be comfortable asking open-ended questions.

At Key Lime Interactive, we recognize that understanding the psyche of a project’s participants is as important as understanding what’s motivating stakeholders and the insights that will ultimately drive business results. Our approach ensures that we are consistent in our process and take all nuances into account. Contact us to explore how we can help with your next research project.


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