Simona Ghetti, Assistant Professor of Psychology, and Kristen Lyons, a graduate student in Psychology, will present their findings at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in San Francisco on August 17.
Although experiments on dolphins, monkeys and rats have shown that these creatures engage in some form of "metacognition" or awareness of their own though processes, psychologists have always assumed that human children do not develop this capability before the age of five.
Lyons and Ghetti have toppled that assumption by teaching three to four year-old children to communicate their awareness of their thought processes using pictures rather than words.
"We've shown that even very young children can think about their thinking. The reason we haven't appreciated it before now is that the studies that have been used to test for it have been too verbally demanding," Ghetti said.
The researchers taught their preschool subjects to point to a photo of a confident-looking face when they felt confident they had the right answer to a question, and to a photo of a doubtful-looking child when they were not confident they had the right answer.
It was found that kids were aware of their uncertainty in the moment. Even three-year-olds pointed to the confident face when they correctly identified a drawing of a monkey that had some features removed to make it harder to recognize. They pointed to the doubtful face if they could not come up with a correct answer.
"Even 3-year-olds are more confident when they're right than when they're wrong," Ghetti said.
How children develop the ability to experience, recognize and understand their thoughts and emotions is a topic of increasing scientific interest, since self-awareness is a prerequisite for the development of a wide range of important human traits, from a conscience to healthy relationships.