Mentor: Professor Lauren J. Myers
Symbols are everywhere in our world; we use them when we read and write, we see them in our homes and every time we step outside, and we need them to communicate to others. In the most general sense, a symbol is anything used to represent anything else. Because we use symbols in communicative contexts, a deeper understanding of symbolic thought tells us more about how children’s minds develop. Previous researchers have discussed pictorial representation as a complex interplay between several factors: the creator, the user, the picture, and the represented object. What remains to be shown is whether children flexibly adapt their symbols to the following conditions: (1) when they receive insight into the mind of the person who will be using their drawing, and (2) when they are made aware that a drawing is insufficient to communicate in a particular context. For instance, an inexperienced symbol-user may misunderstand a perfectly good drawing, and the failure should be attributed to the person, not the drawing. Similarly, if the drawing resembles both the intended object and another available object equally as well, failure could be attributed to the drawing (not the symbol-user). This study will investigate whether children are sensitive to the ways in which these factors influence effective drawing and communication.
Six- to eight-year-old children will be presented with a set of toys that can be easily represented by one simple symbol. For instance, a crosshatched circle that is used to represent three spherical toys with holes throughout their surfaces. The experimenter will then tell the child that the goal of the game is to draw one of the toys in order to communicate to an absent person. Previously, this person was supposed to use a drawing to select the target object from the array of toys, but failed to do so correctly on her initial attempt. We will vary the attribution for her failure: in the drawing condition, the symbol looked too much like all three toys, whereas in the audience condition, the symbol-user always performed poorly at this kind of game. Thus, in one condition, the liability rests with the drawing, but in the other condition the failure can be blamed on the naïve symbol-user. The child will then see a second set of toys that also possessed similar physical characteristics to each other. Next, the child will be asked to create one symbol to represent one toy so that the other person could figure out which toy to pick based on that symbol.
We predict that younger children will not understand that an object can be represented in many ways, and that their depictions of the target toy will be more ambiguous than the depictions created by the older children. Older children should be more likely to understand the subtleties of effective communication, and will therefore represent the object in multiple ways, such as by using words or more detailed drawings. Previous research also indicates that younger children will also be more likely to blame communication failure on the receiver. The results of this study will shed further light on the developmental progression of children’s understanding of symbols and other people’s minds.