What is it about?

In every day life, children's environments are rich with information about objects, people, and events. Developing control over attention allows children to intentionally focus on the parts of the environment that are important for learning and goals. However, some parts of the environment, such as human faces, seem to automatically capture attention. We tested whether caregiver faces, which are one of the most prevalent and rewarding faces in children's lives, might capture attention to a greater extent than faces in general. Using an online computer task, we asked 6-10-year-old children to search for a particular target item (e.g., a picture of a butterfly) as fast as they could among competing distractor images. Sometimes their caregiver's face or a stranger's face also appeared as one of these distractor images. We found that children had more difficulties finding the target when their caregiver's face appeared as a distractor, compared to when a strangers face appeared instead.

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Why is it important?

Past work on attention development have identified two key factors in guiding attention: goal-relevance (e.g., finding a target) and stimulus salience (e.g., how bright/shiny things are). However, in our study, the caregiver's face was not part of the task's goal, and it was also not any more perceptually salient than the stranger's face. Therefore, our results suggest that something besides goal-relevance and stimulus salience may guide children's attention. We suggest that the reward value of the caregiver might have lead to our results. Our findings suggest that rewarding parts of children's environments might be particularly special by guiding children's attention. Also, children's automatic detection of caregiver faces might allow them to learn more effectively from these rewarding people.

Perspectives

I'm especially proud of this work since it was one of the experiments in my Ph.D. dissertation! I originally intended to conduct a similar study on infants using eye tracking methodology, but we instead shifted to this design so that we could continue collecting data during the pandemic. I learned a lot about the unique challenges and benefits of online data collection and had lots of fun testing an age demographic that was new to me as a researcher.

Dr. Brianna Hunter
University of California Davis

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This page is a summary of: Caregiver faces capture 6- to 10-year-old children’s attention during an online visual search task., Developmental Psychology, September 2022, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/dev0001420.
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