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Symbols can help children control impulses, get more of what they want

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Sometimes less is more.

That is a difficult concept to grasp, particularly when you are a 3-year-old. But psychologists have discovered something that helps – symbols.

Researchers investigating how self-control develops in children found that abstract symbols can lead the youngsters toward a more optimal decision than when they have to make a choice with tangible objects such as candy. This was demonstrated when the researchers gave 3-year-olds the choice of a tray with two pieces of candy or one with five. Even when told that the tray they picked would be given away, most of the youngsters still picked the tray with the most candies.

However, when abstract symbols, such as dots or animal pictures were used to represent the candy, many of the 3-year-olds caught on and chose the symbol representing the smaller amount of candy, leading to the larger reward.

"Many 3-year-olds are compelled to point to larger rewards even though in this game that means they will get a smaller reward. When you remove the real reward and substitute it with symbols, it enables children to control their response," said Stephanie Carlson, a University of Washington associate professor of psychology and lead author of a new study appearing in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science.

"When children get stuck on a problem, using symbols can help them solve it. For example, if you are trying to get kids to wait for a marshmallow as a reward it is helpful to get them to think about the reward in a different way – such as thinking of the marshmallow as a fluffy cloud to help them delay gratification. Many parents, however, tend to do the opposite. They say, 'you can't have it now, but just think about how good it will taste when you can.' This increases the temptation instead of shifting their attention," she said.

Carlson, who is studying executive functioning, or how children develop the ability to control their thoughts and actions, set up two experiments.

The first showed that this ability is directly related to age and verbal ability. In the experiment, 101 typically developing 3- and 4-year-olds had to make the choice between the trays containing either smaller or larger amounts of candy (jellybeans or chocolate chips). An experimenter explained the rules, and showed each child that when they pointed to a tray the candy would go to a toy monkey and the child would get the contents on the other tray. Each child was given 16 test trials, with candy being replaced on the trays after each trial.

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