One needs only go through a child’s bedtime routine to quickly learn that children are highly attracted to stories. Children love storybooks, can be motivated by the chance to read storybooks (e.g., “brush your teeth or there will be no stories tonight!”), and form strong bonds with particular stories. That said, there has been little empirical work on what exactly attracts children to these stories. Jennifer Barnes and Paul Bloom (Yale) recently published a series of studies to explore this question. These researchers employed a simple paradigm, presenting children with two options of a possible book to read and recording the preference expressed. By systematically varying how the two options were introduced, they were able to assess whether certain aspects of stories are more appealing to children. In Study 1 (N = 32), they found that children between the ages 4 and 8 preferred stories that were about a person rather than an object (e.g., a boy at a picnic versus a blanket in the backyard). A second study (N = 16) found that 4 and 5 year-olds preferred stories about a person’s goals relative to a story about a person’s actions (e.g., a boy who wants to get a dog versus a boy who goes swimming). Lastly, a third study (N = 72) found that children between the ages of 4 and 8 had a preference for stories that had more characters (e.g., three boys at a circus versus one boy at the zoo), but did not have any preference with respect to stories containing more complex embedded mental states (e.g., a boy who doesn’t know he wants to win the big race versus a boy who wants to play baseball). As a whole, these studies demonstrate that it is the social nature of stories that attracts children, but that embedded mental-states (i.e., second-order theory-of-mind) do not seem to influence preference.
Barnes, J. L. & Bloom, P. (2014). Children’s preference for social stories. Developmental Psychology, 50, 498-503.
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