Young children lean toward hyper optimism, but this fades with age, researchers find

Young children lean toward hyper optimism, but this fades with age, researchers find

by Freya Lucas

February 25, 2022

Children become less optimistic as they age, and while people tend to have “optimism bias” at any age, the decline in optimism can be tracked from childhood through adolescence, with studies showing that as children grow older they learn more from negative outcomes, lose their hyper-optimism, and become more realistic.

 

The study findings, reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General came about from a process where 108 participants aged between eight and 17 years were asked to play a game to gather treasures from different planets. They had to learn how good these planets were in terms of returning treasure, and share with researchers how much they believed they would earn.

 

While all groups of young people had an optimism bias, as they over-estimated how much they were likely to earn, the younger children were particularly hyper-optimistic, and thought they would get the most treasures. 

 

To understand the mechanisms that caused this hyper-optimism in the youngest children, the researchers used computational models to analyse how the participants learned as they progressed through the game, lead author of the study, Johanna Habicht explained. 

 

Mathematical models were used to analyse the participants’ learning, with algorithms that imitate how the brain learns. Based on these methods, researchers were able to show that children are hyper-optimistic, because they learn much less from bad outcomes. 

 

Whilst children learn as much as adolescents when something good happens, they tend to ignore when things are not as good as they hoped, the researchers said. As a result, they now believe that these mechanisms, and the resulting hyper-optimism, may be useful for children to pursue ambitious goals and to overcome obstacles along the way, furthering their growth and development. 

 

A lack of hyper-optimism may even contribute to depression, as previous studies have found that optimism may benefit mental health, physical health, and professional development.

 

“We know that depression often emerges during adolescence, exactly during the time when those rose-tinted glasses are fading. We hope that future research will shed light on whether developmental differences in how children lose their hyper-optimism may relate to the risk of mental illness symptoms,” the researchers shared. 

 

To enable more members of the public to contribute to their neuroscience research, the scientists have developed a smartphone app called Brain Explorer, involving similar games to the one used in this study. By playing the games, people can contribute to research into the development of mental health problems.

 

“Brain Explorer allows everyone to contribute to science by playing fun games on their phone and to help us better understand the causes of mental disorders. Anyone can download the app and contribute to science,” Principal investigator Dr Tobias Hauser said. 

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