Rational thinking in children, adolescents increases with age: York U-led study


TORONTO, Nov. 12, 2013 – Some types of rational thinking in children and adolescents get better with age and positively correlate with intelligence and executive functioning, according to the findings of a developmental study led by York University Professor Maggie Toplak.

“The results are very exciting. Scientifically, they are consistent with what we are finding in our adult work. It’s also a major step in developing new ways to examine competence in youth, beyond the current obsession with measures of intelligence and executive functions,” says Toplak, in the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health.

“These measures can help us understand judgments related to youth risk and issues of legal responsibility. In our increasingly complex technological society, it will be fundamental to assess these competencies and to teach our children how and when to make careful judgments and choices,” says Toplak, whose lab at York U has also examined using rational thinking to assess competence in pathological gamblers and offending youth.

Rational thinking is broadly defined as how well we accomplish our goals and track truth in the world. It has been studied in adults, but relatively less work has been done to test its development in children. Toplak and her co-researchers Richard West of James Madison University and Keith Stanovich of the University of Toronto adapted models from the adult literature to make them appropriate for children.

An article co-authored by the researchers, “Rational Thinking and Cognitive Sophistication: Development, Cognitive Ability, and Thinking Dispositions,” highlighting the findings, is featured in the journal of Developmental Psychology.

“To examine rational thinking in children and youth, our strategy was to examine converging evidence. That is, if there was evidence that older children do better than younger children on some of these tasks, then performance on these tasks should also be correlated with cognitive abilities, such as intelligence and executive functions, and dispositions related to open minded thinking,” says Toplak.

In the study, the researchers looked at developmental trends in five reasoning tasks considered critical components of rational thinking in 204 students from grades 2 to 9, breaking them into three groups (Grades 2 and 3, 4 and 5 and 6 to 9).
This research could affect how competence is assessed in youth, taking not only intelligence and executive functions into consideration, but using rational thinking and decision-making as indicators of competence.

The research, supported through a Social Sciences & Humanities Council of Canada (SSHRC) Operating Grant to Toplak, could lead to several potential implications and directions for this work. This team was recently awarded a by SSHRC Insight Grant to continue the research involving a five-year longitudinal study.

NOTE: The journal of Developmental Psychology article is available for media upon request.

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