Preschoolers can be smarter than college students at figuring out how unusual toys and gadgets work, according to a new study.
Preschoolers outsmart the college students because they are more flexible and less biased than adults in their ideas about cause and effect, researchers said.
The findings suggest that technology and innovation can benefit from the exploratory learning and probabilistic reasoning skills that come naturally to young children, many of whom are learning to use smartphones even before they can tie their shoelaces.
"As far as we know, this is the first study examining whether children can learn abstract cause and effect relationships, and comparing them to adults," said senior author of research, Alison Gopnik, from the University of California - Berkeley.
Using a game they call "Blickets," the researchers looked at how 106 preschoolers (aged 4 and 5) and 170 college undergrads figured out a gizmo that works in an unusual way.
They did this by placing clay shapes (cubes, pyramids, cylinders, etc), on a red-topped box to see which of the widgets - individually or in combination - could light up the box and play music.
The shapes that activated the machine were called "blickets."
What separated the young players from the adult players was their response to changing evidence in the blicket demonstrations.
For example, unusual combinations could make the machine go, and children caught on to that rule, while the adults tended to focus on which individual blocks activated the machine even in the face of changing evidence.
"The kids got it. They figured out that the machine might work in this unusual way and so that you should put both blocks on together. But the best and brightest students acted as if the machine would always follow the common and obvious rule, even when we showed them that it might work differently," wrote Gopnik in her forthcoming column in The Wall Street Journal.
Overall, the youngsters were more likely to entertain unlikely possibilities to figure out "blicketness." The research was published in the journal Cognition.