A new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General looked at how kids who followed adults’ directions were viewed in the United States versus in Vanuatu in the South Pacific.
Researchers, one of which is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Cristine Legare, showed two different videos to adults. One video showed an adult doing a task (making a necklace) and then a child doing that same task the same way. The other video was an adult doing a task and then the child doing the same task, but in a different way. “The child wasn’t totally off task,” Legare says. The participants were asked a very simple question: “Which of the children do you think is smarter?”
In Vanuatu, participants chose the child who followed the task exactly as the adult did as both intelligent and well-behaved. In the United States, participants were less likely to see the child who conformed to do the task as intelligent.
“How large the difference was very surprising,” Legare says.
“Why they thought this interpretation was most interesting,” she says. In the U.S., Legare would get comments like “She’s so creative. She’s so innovative. What a future leader.” “It’s astonishing. It’s just a child not doing something the same way.”
Legare says it points to how strong this bias toward individualism and creativity is in the United States.
The answers that adults in the U.S. gave also varied based on their own education level. Those that had no college education were more likely to back the kids who conformed, but still less likely than adults from Vanuatu to see them as intelligent.
Legare says Vanuatu is particularly chosen to do research in because of its completely different approach to education. Children there usually don’t have formal education, instead they learn skills and trades from their parents or grandparents or another adult.
Even more interesting, Legare is continuing the study, but instead of just looking at the way adults viewed the kids in the video, she’s looking at the way kids see those peers. And the results, which will be published in a few months, could not be more different than the U.S. adults, but were the same as the Vanuatu adults. The kids both in Vanuatu and the U.S. saw conformity (making the necklace the same way as the adult) as a sign of high intelligence.
They actually saw the kids who didn’t follow the adult as being “dumb” or asking questions like “what’s wrong with that kid?”
Why might that be? Legare asks us to think about our education system. Often, kids are not asked to be creative, to problem solve, to think outside the box until they get to college. Often, before that time, education is about doing things the same way (the correct way) over and over again.
“One of the biggest predictors of academic success is self-regulation,” Legare says. “You are sitting in a chair for hours on end and doing what a teacher tells you. And doing it again and again. You’re inhibiting your impulse to do X.”
Even kids who try to rebel do it in a way that is accepted by their peers, she says.
And yet, their parents in the United States are going out of their way through after-school activities and advanced classes to have kids distinguish themselves from their peers. They want kids to be out-of-the-box thinkers, yet they reward conformity and good behavior. “It’s mixed messages,” Legare says.
Legare sees her research as helping schools figure out how to change the way they teach and what they value, experimenting with more open-ended questions, more project-based learning, more higher-level thinking.
It’s what needs to happen, she says, because often, when college kids get to her class, they ask questions like “Is this going to be on the test?” rather than learning for learning’s sake. And then, when they get out in the real world, they struggle at their first jobs with not being told exactly how to do something.
“They’re so afraid to fail,” she says because they haven’t been given the opportunity to fail.
It makes Legare wonder what will happen to the future of American innovation.
So, do you see your own children’s nonconformity as a sign of their intelligence? Do you encourage it or do you really just wish that they would put away their clothes in their closet like you’ve showed them a thousand time?