By Cynthia Graber (Click here for the original article and podcast)
It’s a confusing world for babies. To make sense of it, they look for intellectual stimulation. But they’re only interested if what they look at is not too hard to comprehend—or boringly easy. Researchers call it the Goldilocks effect, in a study in the journal Public Library of Science One. [Celeste Kidd, Steven T. Piantadosi and Richard N. Aslin, "The Goldilocks Effect: Human Infants Allocate Attention to Visual Sequences That Are Neither Too Simple Nor Too Complex"]
Seventy-two seven- and eight-month-old babies had their eye movements tracked as they watched videos. They sat on their parents’ laps for security—but the grown-ups wore visors and headphones, so they couldn’t see the videos and give subconscious cues.
In the videos, objects appeared behind or in boxes. When a video became too boring—exactly the same thing happened all the time—the babies lost interest and looked away.
But when the videos got too complex—with no pattern or action that could be anticipated—the babies again stopped looking. They needed just enough complexity.
The researchers say the study suggests that babies need some element of surprise to maintain attention. They add this finding is reminiscent of theories about adult learners, who might lose interest if material is too easy or too hard. Like Goldlocks’s porridge, it has to be just right.