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New study reveals how children perceive their environment compared with adults

ASU researchers find developmental differences in children’s visual perceptions, opening doors to tailored education, safety strategies


A group photo of ASU researchers Matthew Langley, Michael McBeath, Kaitlin Van Houghton and Kelsey Lucca.

Along with a $1,000 award to work on this research, the Psychology Honors Sequence brought Kaitlin Van Houghton (second from right) together with graduate student Matthew Langley (far left) and psychology faculty members Michael McBeath (second from left) and Kelsey Lucca (far right) to collaborate on vertical attention bias (VAB) research. Van Houghton’s role in the study was showcased in her honors thesis. Photo courtesy the ASU Department of Psychology

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August 11, 2023

Close your eyes and imagine a plastic bottle. What do you notice first? Was it the cap at the top or the shape of the base? Now take a step back and look at the room you are in. Where was your attention drawn first? Was it drawn to a table or chair placed firmly on the ground, or did you gaze upward toward something on a wall?

Depending on your age, the answer may differ.

A novel study conducted by a team of researchers from Arizona State University has shed light on how children perceive their environment in comparison with adults. Recently published in the American Psychological Association’s “Developmental Psychology” and selected for their Kudos Research Showcase, the results of the study were striking.

Children and adults were found to exhibit a common vertical attention bias (VAB) for object tops and scene bottoms — that is, both children and adults tended to direct their focus toward the tops of objects and toward elements in scenes that are positioned below their horizon line. However, the study also revealed that adults have a slightly stronger bias compared with children, indicating some residual learning between 4 and 7 years old and highlighting an opportunity to tailor educational materials and safety messages to maximize attention and learning experiences for young children.

A team effort

The study was a collaboration that spanned psychological disciplines and engaged researchers at varying academic levels. Team members included ASU graduate student Matthew Langley and recent alumna Kaitlin Van Houghton, who had the unique opportunity to participate in the Psychology Honors Sequence during her undergraduate studies, a program that enables Barrett, The Honors College students to pursue empirically based honors theses in psychology. Along with a $1,000 award to work on this research, the Psychology Honors Sequence brought Van Houghton together with Langley and psychology faculty members Michael McBeath and Kelsey Lucca of ASU’s Department of Psychology, a unit within The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Combining McBeath and Langley’s cognitive science backgrounds with developmental psychology expertise from Lucca and Van Houghton, this interdisciplinary study recruited 103 participants, including 50 children and 53 adults. Participants were shown a series of naturalistic photographic triptychs online. When viewing the arrangements of three photographs presented together as a unified piece, they were asked to make similarity judgements by comparing a test figure to its two flanking figures that either shared the same top or the same bottom. The collaboration between two different areas of psychology was critical to the study’s success.

“The cognitive science really systematically controlled stimuli, so we were able to perfectly match the scenes,” said Lucca. “The developmental methods we brought created this really immersive experience for the kids.”

Replicating the adult study Langley and McBeath produced, Van Houghton created a stimulating environment for young participants as part of her honors thesis project with Lucca. As children worked through the research trial, they began to see elements of a virtual toy shop unfold in front of them. The toys came to life against colorful backdrops, and fun music played each time they answered a set of five questions.

“Following survey collection, my role was to evaluate and visualize the data, as well as prepare my defense and final written thesis, which became the first draft of the manuscript that is now our publication,” said Van Houghton. “It’s astounding to see where this project has come over the last two years.”

Van Houghton had the opportunity to present a first-author poster on the study at the international Society for Research in Child Development Conference last spring. She admitted to being a little nervous before presenting but grateful for receiving unwavering support from her research team, with Lucca and McBeath there to cheer her on.

“If anyone is considering making the leap to get involved in research or join the Honors College, I highly encourage them to do so. It was the best decision I made in my four years at ASU,” Van Houghton said. “I truly cannot underestimate the impact that engaging in this research has had on me. I came to the university with little confidence in my academic abilities and zero knowledge of psychology research. I marvel at how far I came during the course of this project.”

Future opportunities

The team’s curiosity is now leading an investigation into even younger children to help determine if humans have innate VAB or if it is developed through our experience of the world. Langley, McBeath and Lucca’s Emerging Minds Lab will explore VAB during two critical growth milestones: when kids start reaching for objects and right after they start walking.

“I think it’s going to be interesting to see how rigid these biases are and to see if kids are more willing and able to flexibly update them,” said Lucca.

Langley, who teaches research methods at ASU, explains this research to his students by asking them to imagine entering a dark hotel room for the first time. Where do you look to turn on the light switch?

“We have this behavioral tendency to look for information or things that we can interact with in our world, and through these repeated interactions, we have a perceptual bias to look for that information in certain aspects of our world,” Langley said. “It’s really interesting how even though children have different body sizes and different experiences living in a world that is really not constructed for them, they are still picking up on where the information to act is.”

These findings carry significant implications for society. Understanding this common vertical attention bias, which transcends age, body size and cognitive growth, can aid designers in creating effective learning spaces that capitalize on individuals’ natural inclinations. It opens up exciting possibilities for exploring the intricate relationship between perception, action and environmental affordances.

“This is an approach to figuring out how our biases match up to the real-world environment” McBeath said. He explained that the online nature of the study presents an opportunity to continue to probe the depths of visual perception and attention bias even further.

For example, when people view the outside of a house, are they looking at it through the VAB of an object or a scene? How does VAB show up in children of different cultures? When natural or manmade disasters destroy infrastructure, how do people reorient themselves to their surroundings?

Lucca’s Emerging Minds Lab is currently welcoming families and young children to participate in research. Interested parties can explore current studies and sign up online.

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