Current Desires Distort Children's Choices About The Future

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Children's Desires

When it comes to predicting what they want in the future, even a crystal ball probably wouldn't help preschool children figure out what they might want tomorrow.

Psychologists looking at the largely unknown world of how children perceive the future have found that the youngsters' choices are warped when they are caught up in a primal desire such as thirst.

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The researchers, headed by Cristina Atance, a University of Ottawa assistant professor of psychology, used pretzels to induce thirst in 3-to-5-year-olds. Then they asked one group of these children whether they wanted pretzels or water right now and asked a second group if they would want pretzel or water for tomorrow. Another group of youngsters was not fed pretzels and, when asked to make these same choices for now or for tomorrow, expressed a strong preference for pretzels over water. This was in stark contrast to the first two first groups of children who almost unanimously said they wanted water both for now and for tomorrow. The findings, published in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science, show the extent to which young children's current desires can impact their choices for the future.

"The popular idea is that children are rooted in the here and now," said Atance, "but little research to date has directly explored this claim. On the basis of this study, I think we can conclude that in some instances, at least, this claim is accurate.

Co-author Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the University of Washington's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences and the Job and Gertrud Tamaki Chair in psychology, said, "We think of anticipating the future as being one of the most distinctively human traits. We don't only live in the present. It is characteristic of human beings that we engage in mental time-travel. We have present and future selves. Sometimes the needs and desires of the present self conflict with those of the future self."

Atance said the study echoes well-known experiments that showed hungry adults bought more food at the grocery store than those who ate before shopping. The new study looked at thirst instead of hunger. For it, 48 children

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