Illustration by Rebecca Clarke

While you may think it builds self-confidence to let your preschooler win at Go Fish, you could actually be doing your child a disservice.

Carrie Palmquist, assistant professor of psychology, and Ashleigh Rutherford ’16 have found that when young kids experience “illusory success,” it hinders their ability to formulate and act on judgments they make about their own performance. As a result, children may become conditioned to ignore valuable information they could use in future decision-making.

In a series of experiments, Palmquist and Rutherford asked 4- and 5-year-olds to play a hiding game with objects as two adult “experimenters” offered them clues. One of these adults gave the children accurate clues; the other gave inaccurate ones.

Palmquist and Rutherford then manipulated the game for half of the children so that no matter where the kids looked, they always found the hidden objects. The successes of the remaining children were left to chance, meaning that the kids were more likely to find hidden objects with the helpful adult than with the unhelpful one.

Children may be less savvy than earlier research suggests, says Carrie Palmquist. Photo by Ilana Panich-Linsman

After the games, the scientists asked the kids which of the two adults they would like to ask for help in finding additional hidden objects.

“Kids who had been in the rigged version of the game showed no preference for the previously helpful person,” says Palmquist. “In fact, they didn’t even think of her as having been helpful.” The kids in the unrigged version, however, showed a clear preference for the helpful adult.

“When children were extremely successful, they seemed to ignore otherwise relevant cues as to who would be a better source of information,” Palmquist says.

Why is this important? “First, it suggests that children may not be as savvy as previous research has suggested,” Palmquist says. “Second, it suggests that in the real world, when children experience a great deal of success on a task—Mom or Dad always letting them win at a game, for example—they may become less aware of important information that they could use to learn about the world, because they see it as less relevant to their future success.”

Palmquist and Rutherford co-authored a paper on their findings that will appear in December in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. Rutherford is now a clinical research assistant at the Laboratory for Affective and Translational Neuroscience. For her work with Palmquist, she received a summer stipend from Amherst’s Gregory S. Call Undergraduate Research Program.