The Amazing Shrinking Room : Childrens' use of Symbols

i-75fa6f7cebb4145668724f37f5a52b36-steve_icon_medium.jpgResearchBlogging.orgIf you have kids you might have seen them make some very funny errors early in their lives. They do things like try to sit on miniature chairs, try to climb into small houses, or drive toy cars. Why in the world do children make these scale errors?! Can't they see that the small versions only represent the real larger versions?

Research by Judy DeLoache and colleagues has given us some great insights into this problem as well as one of the most entertaining methods for a psychology study ever. Let's first visit the reasoning for what Dr. DeLoache studies,

My primary area of research is early cognitive development, especially the development of symbolic functioning. There is no domain of development more important than mastery of the various symbols and symbol systems used for communication. My research has focused on the origins of children's understanding of symbolic artifacts, such as pictures, models, and replica objects.

I have proposed that the exploitation of symbolic objects requires dual representation: One must perceive and mentally represent both the object itself and, at the same time, one must represent the relation between the object and what it stands for. Achieving dual representation is a formidable challenge for very young children. Symbol-referent relations that seem simple and obvious to adults are neither simple nor obvious to young children, in large part because they focus too much on the object itself to the neglect of its relation to its referent.

In a seminal paper published by DeLoache, J.D., Miller, K.F., & Rosengren, K. S. entitled "The credible shrinking room: Very young children's performance with symbolic and non-symbolic relations." (Psychological Science. (1997), 8, 308-313.) the authors designed a task to explore the dual representation hypothesis. This hypothesis is basically that children must mentally represent both the physical structure of the symbol and the real thing. And in addition, be able to understand the abstract relation between the two. However, there are some problems with children doing this. The more concrete & salient a symbol is the more difficult it is for children to use as an abstract symbol.

In their experiment a scale model was constructed to precisely match the lab and 2.5 year-old children watched as a doll was hidden in a room. They were then told to go to a miniature room where they could find a miniature doll (the same troll but little) in the same place as in the big room. Surprisingly the kids were unable (only about 20%) to find the hidden troll in the miniature room even though it was identical to the larger room.

This is where one of the coolest manipulations in psychology pops up.

In another condition the children were shown where the troll was hidden in a large room, taken out of the large room, and told that a shrinking machine was shrinking the room into a miniature. This miniaturization was complete with a fake machine and shrinking noises. Now when the children were shown the miniature room they were able to find the shrunken doll (about 80% of the time) in the shrunken room.

Check out the Figure below for the methods:


The authors conclude that their research provides clear evidence that young children have a difficult time understanding symbols because of their difficulty in achieving a dual representation. This dual representation is most difficult for younger children because they have limited information processing capacity as well as limited cognitive flexibility, making it very hard to represent a single thing in two ways.

I highly recommend reading this paper in full. It's nice and well as awesome.

DeLoache, J.D., Miller, K.F., Rosengren, K.S. (1997). Miller, K.F., & Rosengren, K. S. (1997). The credible shrinking room: Very young children's performance with symbolic and non-symbolic relations. Psychological Science, 8, 308-313.


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There was a good summary of their work in Scientific American a while back.

So what does this say about animals that appear to associate pictures of things with the actual things?

Thanks-very interesting post about. I've not come across this research before. I wonder has anyone replicated with children on the autistic spectrum?I'm too busy@work/lazy to look that up now but if anyone knows that would be great.

Also; how cool would it have been one of the children in the second condition-'I went to these cool scientists and they had a shrink ray and the shrunk a troll!'.

ditto-- interesting. Nonverbal children, not just with autism but also profound congitive delays often are introduced to augmentative communication with miniature objects, which are thought to be easier to comprehend than photos or line drawings. I've never been sure about this myself, especially since they often look different from the actual item. (a pink dollhouse toilet, for example). Often these children are 'presymbolic' cognitively-- i.e. appear to be at a developmental age of under 12 months. So if such a child appears to use the item symbolically, might it just be a learned association, and it might as well be a safety pin or dice or anything, not a miniature representation of the real item?

Mary: I was thinking along the same lines myself with regard to the above study's impact on childern with some sort of developmental delay/intellectual disabilty. As in, does the use of augmentative comunication strategies which appear to require the use of symbolic cognition ACTUALLY require the use of this ability to 'symbolise' or is it just pure behaviourism in action.

I know one augmentative communication system I've seen used with children(and adults)with autism is PECS(Picture exchange communication system or something like that) which is based on learned associations, even if the pictures used generally look like the objects.

However you have to bear in mind that people with autism are usually fairly strong visually. I would guess that children with autism would not perform very well in the second condition(I think they would have difficulty with accepting the minituarisation machine idea which could lead to some confusion). But thats just my guess.

Interesting idea for a study for my doctorate if I get into one anyway! as long as the admission doesn't take into account my spelling and grammer on this comment I should do fine :-)