Are minimally counter-intuitive concepts more memorable for young children?

A few months ago, I took my 4-year-old daughter to the Ghent Design Museum which hosts an extensive collection of designer furniture. Some of this furniture looks positively bizarre, such as a couch made of banana peels. About 5 months later, I asked my daughter if she could remember anything of the museum, and she ventured 'there was a flying chair' (i.e., a chair that hung suspended by a transparent nylon string). This made me wonder whether there is any systematic research on whether young children, like adults from various cultures, are better able to remember ideas that are minimally counterintuitive, i.e. things that violate our basic ontological expectations of how things are supposed to behave.

I know that even young infants can show surprise at such unexpected events (e.g., looking time experiments in which infants stare longer at objects that seem to defy gravity), but I am unaware of any systematic experimental research that investigates whether young children are also able to remember counterintuitive things better.



  • comment-avatar
    Lucien Dontask 24 November 2007 (00:00)

    None that I know of, Helen, besides the visual experiments that you mention. At Oxford, however, we’re setting up a virtual world lab (in something called Second Life, on which I’m not an expert), that will use visual displays of bizarre and counterintuitive events to test memory effects. It would be very interesting to run these experiments with children too, I agree, although given what we know about folk physics and infants I don’t expect we will see massive ontogenetic changes in childhood.

  • comment-avatar
    Lucien Dontask 26 November 2007 (00:00)

    Thank you for this, Nicola. Although I am not a second life expert either, I think this setup sounds really intriguing – as far as I know, most experiments that probe counterintuitive stimuli are linguistic, such as Barrett & Nyhoff’s experiments where people had to recall elements of varying degrees of counterintuitiveness of stories. The experimental setup you mention bypasses possible language effects. Please let me know (perhaps on this blog) if the results are published.

  • comment-avatar
    Lucien Dontask 17 December 2007 (00:00)

    Sure, although the person responsible for the programming is only just starting — it will be a few months until piloting at least. Incidentally, as part of the programme I’m working on, we have prepared some summaries of research on topics in the cognitive science of religion, minimal counterintuitiveness is one of them. More topics will be published soon. You can find the available ones here: