Children fail to learn value of turn-taking until age five

22 June 2016

  • Turn-taking is a skill children only learn the value of at five-years-old
  • Alicia Melis study compared skills of young children and chimpanzees
  • Five-year-olds better than 3.5 year-olds and chimps at taking turns
  • The skill is vital in later life argues Dr Melis

It takes children until they are five years-old to learn to take turns according to research from Warwick Business School academic Alicia Melis.

The findings show five year-old children adopted a turn-taking strategy more effectively than their younger counterparts, suggesting the skill emerges as children’s cognitive abilities mature.

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“Although chimpanzees and young children may be able to engage in reciprocal interactions that are driven by past events – ‘she was nice to me, so I will be nice to her now’ – this study shows that they are not aware of prospective turn-taking and able to understand the long-term benefits of taking turns,” said Dr Melis, Assistant Professor of Behavioural Science.

“This suggests that more complex planning and reasoning skills are necessary for turn-taking.”

Ensure future benefits

The ability to take turns to ensure future benefits is a fundamental and strategic social behaviour that expands the range of co-operative behaviours humans exhibit.

According to Dr Melis it allows individuals to co-operate even when they have conflicting interests or would otherwise compete with each other, such as when parents take turns picking children up at school.

To investigate children’s and chimpanzees’ turn-taking abilities for their paper One for You, One for Me: Humans’ Unique Turn-Taking Skills, published in Psychological Science, Dr Melis and colleagues devised an experiment involving rewards placed on specially designed trays.

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Each pair of participants had to work together to pull the trays so that a reward – stickers for children, fruit for chimpanzees – would be reachable. Importantly, pulling one tray resulted in losing the reward on the other tray.

The researchers tested a total of 96 pre-schoolers, half of whom were three-and-a-half years-old and half of whom were five years-old. Each age-matched pair completed 24 turn-taking trials. They also tested 12 chimpanzees, each of whom completed 48 trials with one partner and 48 trials with another partner.

The results showed that the five year-old children managed to access a reward on 99.5 per cent of the trials, while the three-and-a-half year-olds were successful in only 62.3 per cent of the trials. The five year-olds also took turns more often than the three-and-a-half year-olds and their turn-taking increased as they completed more trials.

chart showing children and chimps ability to co-operate
Good to talk: Chart showing the turn-taking and co-operation levels between children and chimps

The data showed that although some of the younger pairs eventually developed a turn-taking strategy, it took them a while to do so – some of the three-and-a-half year-olds never resolved their conflict of interest.

“Although young children are encouraged to take turns across many different situations, including in interactions with adults and when sharing resources with other children, our findings show that it was only from age five when the children were able to spontaneously take turns to solve a conflict of interests,” said Dr Melis, who teaches Leading for Innovation on the Executive MBA.

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The chimpanzee pairs had a success rate similar to that of the younger children, accessing a reward about 64 per cent of the time. All of the chimpanzee pairs were able to co-operate for at least several trials in a row, but none of the pairs adopted a consistent turn-taking strategy.

These findings suggest that foregoing an immediate benefit to accommodate the desires of another individual is a co-operative strategy that may develop over time in humans but not in chimpanzees.

“The fact that these skills in humans do not develop until age five suggests that turn-taking requires sophisticated cognitive skills that may be lacking in chimpanzees,” said Dr Melis.

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