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02/27/2002 Entry: "Conservation"

Children exhibit some rather peculiar beliefs when they are young. In the phase of mental development that some call preoperational thought, which lasts from about two to six years old, children are non-conservative. This has nothing to do with political ideologies; instead it refers to children's perception of reality.

There's a very interesting experiment you can do with non-conserving children (if you have one handy, it might be educational to try it out yourself). Get two identically shaped glasses, and fill them up with equal amounts of water. Obviously this should be done in the guise of a game or something or else the kid is going to be a bit confused. Make the child agree that there is an equal amount of water in the glasses. Now, get a long, thin glass, and pour the contents of one of the glasses into it. The long thin glasses should have a higher level of water than the other glass, but of course it has the same volume of water.

Does the child agree that there is an equal amount of water in the glasses though? No. Why not? Because one of the glasses (the long thin one) is filled to a higher level. Very strange.

You can do this sort of thing with lines of sweets, where you get two lines of equal numbers of sweets, which the child will agree are equal, then then spread one line out so that it is longer (the child thinks that there's more sweets in that line - even after counting them).

So you might think, "Oh, this isn't surprising, they're only kids, and no wonder they think that length or height equates to amount." But why 'no wonder'? Why do children suddenly undergo a qualitative change in thinking at about six years old, such that they suddenly become non-conserving and are able to answer these questions properly?

We were shown a very amusing video that showed two kids of the same age arguing over whether two equally long pencil were in fact equally long. The experimenters had placed the kids at opposite ends of a table and places the pencils perpendicular to the children, parallel but slightly staggered next to each other. This meant that each child would see that one of the pencils was slightly further away from him than the other - but of course the pencil in question would differ between the two children since they are looking from opposite directions. They were told to decide amongst themselves which pencil was longer, and when they did they would have to call their teacher and put the pencils back in the way they found them.

Get two non-conserver kids to do this, and much hilarity ensues as each fervently claims that the pencil furthest away from them in longest. If you get one conserver and one non-conserver in (both of the same age - the transition period is variable between individuals), then the situation is more interesting. In nearly all cases, the conserver can prove to the non-conserver that the pencils are equal in length, usually by simply moving the pencils so that they are next to each other. The thing is, non-conservers use logic to bring their partners around, whereas conservers use power (physical or blackmail).

It strikes me that this conservation problem is a rather good analogy when used against any two people with diametrically opposing viewpoints on emotive issues. It's thought that conservers really do believe what they say ('The pencil on the right is longer because it's higher!') because they are more concerned with the appearance of the situation instead of the reality. From their point of view, they are correct - the pencil on the right does seem to be longer. Same for conservers - they know that the pencil on their left does seem to be longer, but they know that in reality it is not. What we have here is a transition from thinking about appearance to reality.

Sometimes I wonder how interesting this might seem to super-intelligent aliens, if they went and kidnapped two people of opposing viewpoints and watched them battle it out on video. They'd probably have a good laugh.

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