Science in the Magic House

21 May 2013 by Kerstin Hoppenhaus, posted in Social Cognition

Children want to help. That is pretty well established. But why they do it, is not.

Robert Hepach has developed a method to explore exactly this: what is it that motivates young children to help?

To study this he uses an eye tracker that measures the pupil dilation of children after they performed certain tasks. Pupil dilation is related to „sympathetic arousal“, changes in the activity of the sympathetic nervous system that occur whenever an organism pays attention to something, both good or bad.

In order to measure the pupils, the child has to sit still in front of a screen and focus on some visual cue. She doesn’t have to sit there long, but several times, in a prescribed manner. The children in this study are five years old. Their interest in the screen is... limited.

I cannot go into the specifics of the current setup, because the study is unpublished and the drive for cooperation seems to be somewhat less distinctive in adult psychologists than it is in two year olds.

But I was fascinated, just how artfully they create a setting where the child acts naturally and still sits in front of the eye tracker in the right position at the right time.

It takes four adults the better of an hour to collect two new datapoints. If you don’t know what their goal is, you would think it’s just an hour of happy child’s play. And in fact, that is what most of the children think.

But behind that is a carefully designed script, almost every phrase has its purpose in creating an as standardized and relevant setting as possible. These phrases include „The magic house is calling!“, „Let me turn the train around.“ and „Let’s give the cow some woodruff lemonade!“ (and yes, of course it is screaming green!). It all looks deceptively simple, but after watching the procedure several times one begins to realize the clockwork precision behind it.

In addition to the eyetracking data, everything is recorded. One helper sits in the control room next door in front of a number of computer screens. The mothers sit here, too, and watch intently the actions of their child.

After an hour, study time is over, much to the disappointment of the children. They get to pick a little gift from a big box, and off they go, totally unaware of their service to science.

By now, Robert Hepach and his colleagues have played „Magic House“ almost a hundred times. They still need a couple of more rounds of woodruff lemonade before they can start to analyse their data. So far, they only know they have the data, but no idea of the results.

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