Costs of Selective Attention: When Children Notice What Adults Miss

Psychol Sci. 2017 Jun;28(6):723-732. doi: 10.1177/0956797617693005. Epub 2017 Apr 7.


One of the lawlike regularities of psychological science is that of developmental progression-an increase in sensorimotor, cognitive, and social functioning from childhood to adulthood. Here, we report a rare violation of this law, a developmental reversal in attention. In Experiment 1, 4- to 5-year-olds ( n = 34) and adults ( n = 35) performed a change-detection task that included externally cued and uncued shapes. Whereas the adults outperformed the children on the cued shapes, the children outperformed the adults on the uncued shapes. In Experiment 2, the same participants completed a visual search task, and their memory for search-relevant and search-irrelevant information was tested. The young children outperformed the adults with respect to search-irrelevant features. This demonstration of a paradoxical property of early attention deepens current understanding of the development of attention. It also has implications for understanding early learning and cognitive development more broadly.

Keywords: attention; cognitive development; learning; open data; open materials.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cues*
  • Female
  • Form Perception / physiology*
  • Human Development / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male