AMHERST, Mass.— Moms and dads take note: While you may think letting your preschooler win at Go Fish builds self-confidence, you could actually be doing your child a disservice.

Amherst College psychology professor Carrie Palmquist and former student Ashleigh Rutherford ’16 have found that when young kids experience “illusory success” related to a particular task, their ability to formulate and act on judgments they make about their own performance suffers. As a result, the children may become conditioned to ignore valuable information they could use in future decision-making, according to a study coauthored by Palmquist and Rutherford.


Carrie Palmquist
Professor Carrie Palmquist; photo by Ilana Panich-Linsman

The teacher-student research team published a paper about their research in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. Their article, which was titled “Success inhibits preschoolers’ ability to establish selective trust,” was also co-authored by collaborator Vikram Jaswal, psychology professor at the University of Virginia. It will appear in the journal’s December 2016 issue, but it is currently available online to subscribers.

The paper explains the results of a study conducted in Palmquist’s Child Learning and Development Lab on campus. In a series of experiments, Palmquist and Rutherford asked 4- and 5-year-olds to play a hiding game with objects, in which two adult “experimenters” offered them clues. One experimenter gave 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 the hidden objects with the helpful adult than the unhelpful one.

After the games, the scientists asked their young research subjects which of the two people 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,” said Palmquist. “In fact, they didn’t even think of her as having been helpful.”

The kids who were in the unrigged version showed a clear preference for the helpful person. 

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

“This is important for two reasons,” she continued. “First, it suggests that children may not be as savvy as previous research has suggested. 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 teaches developmental psychology at Amherst. She studies humans’ ability to communicate and how that ability distinguishes humans from many of our closest genetic relatives. Her goal is to explore the essence of our predisposition to teach and learn from others.

Rutherford is a clinical research assistant at the Laboratory for Affective and Translational Neuroscience, which is affiliated with McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Rutherford was supported by the Greg Call Undergraduate Research Program. This summer program provides a stipend of $410 per week plus the cost of on-campus housing for Amherst students to engage in a substantial research project under the supervision of a faculty member.