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"Tot Recall" -- The Discovery Files

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Contrary to previous assumptions, researchers at UC Davis found that preschoolers are able to gauge the strength of their memories and make decisions based on their self-assessments.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

(Sound effect: kids playing) Childhood reflections.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

At what age do children have the ability to gauge the strength of a memory? To assess how certain they are of something? It's part of what's known as "metacognition." Researchers have assumed that very young children do not have this ability. But a University of California, Davis study indicates it could be present in tots as young as three.

Eighty-one kids, ages three through five, were shown pictures of common items such as a balloon or a piano. Half of the images were shown only once, the other half twice. Then, the researchers presented a pair of images one the kids had seen, and a new one not previously shown. The kids were asked to pick the image they had seen before, and to sort their answers into two boxes one for answers that they were confident about, the other for ones they weren't so sure of.

The four- and five-year olds appropriately demonstrated less confidence in their incorrect answers. They were also more confident about images they had seen twice, indicating they could distinguish between stronger and weaker memories. Even the three-year olds showed a limited ability for metacognition.

The findings may have implications for the way we teach preschoolers and for the reliability of young children's testimony in court.

Metacognition or, "why it takes so long at the toy store."

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research--brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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