Children are active learners: they learn not only from the information people offer and the evidence they happen to observe, but by actively seeking information. However, children's information search strategies are typically less efficient than those of adults. In two studies, we isolate potential sources of developmental change in how children (7- and 10-year-olds) and adults search for information. To do so, we develop a hierarchical version of the 20-questions game, in which participants either ask questions (Study 1) or test individual objects (Study 2) to discover which category of objects within a nested structure (e.g., animals, birds, or owls) has a novel property. We also develop a computational model of the task, which allows us to evaluate performance in quantitative terms. As expected, we find developmental improvement in the efficiency of information search. In addition, we show that participants' performance exceeds random search, but falls short of optimal performance. We find mixed support for the idea that children's inefficiency stems from difficulty thinking beyond the level of individual objects or hypotheses. Instead, we reveal a previously undocumented source of developmental change: Children are significantly more likely than adults to continue their search for information beyond the point at which a single hypothesis remains, and thus to ask questions and select objects associated with zero information gain. This suggests that one crucial source of developmental change in information search efficiency lies in children's "stopping rules".
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Developmental and Educational Psychology
- Life-span and Life-course Studies
- 20-questions game
- Active learning
- Cognitive development
- Information search