Children begin to outsource their thinking at a very young age – Innovita Research

Children begin to outsource their thinking at a very young age

Companies often outsource some of their activities. It means that some parts of their work are done by other organizations, typically where labour is cheaper or there are other incentives. But humans outsource some of their activities too. Scientists from the University of Queensland found that children begin outsourcing thinking at a very early age.

We are always offloading our cognitive load by using notes, calendars and to do lists. Image credit: Liveoncelivewild via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

This phenomenon isn’t actually called outsourcing of thinking. It’s actual name is cognitive offloading. In simple terms, it is our tendency to make our thinking a little bit easier by using external means. For example, you could try remembering when is your next dentist’s appointment, but it is so much easier to just look at the calendar rather than to focus and think. Not to mention that some of us are still using fingers to count something in some situations. Obviously, adults do that all the time – we use our notebooks and smartphones to offload the cognitive load, but children start doing that at a very early age.

Scientists conducted two studies, involving children aged four to 11 years old. They had to complete several mental rotation tasks. They were looking at a turntable with a certain puzzle. By turning the table they could solve the puzzle without using their brain too much. As tasks got harder, more and more children opted for the easier option of turning the table. Even the youngest participants in the study followed this strategy. Interestingly, some of them used this external strategy to avoid thinking even when there was no obvious benefit to it. 

Kristy Armitage, one of the authors of the study, said: “With increasing age, children became better at differentiating between situations where the external strategy was beneficial and where it was redundant, showing a similar flexibility to that demonstrated by adults”.

Scientists argue that these results show how we manage to calibrate our cognitive offloading with age. It is sort of a skill. When youngest children are trying to offload their cognitive load even when there is no obvious benefit, older kids and adults start choosing the most efficient strategy. It is quite interesting, because adults are very flexible in their cognitive offloading behaviour, but we didn’t even know when this skill actually develops. 

Of course, some people might think that cognitive offloading in childhood is actually a bad idea. In some countries children are not even allowed to use calculators until a certain age, so that they would be encouraged to learn calculating in their mind. However, cognitive offloading is natural and it can free up some mental capacity for harder tasks. 


Source: University of Queensland