the origins of scientific misconceptions

So where do trees get their mass? From water? From soil? From sunlight? Turns out, adults commonly don’t know.

And now I know why. Cogsci-kid-2’s preschool class is planting and watering seeds when I overheard a teacher ask, “What do our plants need to grow?” Cogsci-kid-2 nonchalantly looks up from his truck toys and says, “carbon dioxide,” and then resumes crashing trucks. The teachers looked surprised. After all, that was NOT one of the answers they were expecting! HA! They didn’t even validate his answer as correct so I stepped in and gave him a high 5!

**Disclaimer: His teachers are super awesome in general. I don’t fault them because most adults don’t think about this so they are just being normal!

The truth about other people’s children

Happy new year! Now that the season of sending beautifully photographed Christmas cards featuring the cutest kids in their best clothes is over, I can now tell the truth.

Thank you for those Christmas cards. They help me keep track of how many children you have. Because here is the truth:

  1. Your first child: We will learn their name and their sex.
  2. Your second child: We will know they exist and we will be, on average, 50% correct about their sex.
  3. Your third+ child: We will know they exist only when your Christmas card comes around. (“Dang! They had a 3rd kid? When? That kid looks like it’s been alive for a while! Was she pregnant?”)

Programming for kids!

So these days we know for sure that our kids are screwed if they do not learn programming from the time they are zygotes. I know this is somewhat of an hyperbole… but any half-way decent tiger mother has already looked up ways to help their kids program (e.g., apps, camps). As further evidence, take the efforts that many are going through to figure out how to teach programming for kids (e.g., Google’s Project Bloks below):

In my area of research, I think a lot about this question: what are core concepts in understanding of math and science? So I ask myself, what are CORE concepts in programming?

Off the top of my head, I feel like there are some important basic skills, like how to debug, how to model, how to make an algorithm, how to structure data… Now a lot of that you probably have to learn by doing. Which is why we need tools like Project Bloks, Scratch (MIT),  Lego Mindstorms to provide platforms upon which kids can learn to code.

But I think we need something more. A lot of coding is based on logic, structures, patterns and these are just IDEAS. You can probably learn these ideas THROUGH coding but I tend to think, at least for young children, coding may not be the best way to learn these abstract concepts (Perhaps programming is! I’m open to the idea! I just have my doubts is all.) Or at the very least, I don’t think we need computers in order to teach kids about these cool concepts.

That’s why I love stuff like Code Monkey Island where you have cards such as “for each monkey on a tree, move 3 spaces” (for loop, boolean operators) or “if any monkey is on a vine, move 1 space” (if..then, conditional statements). This is a physical board game but it targets the actual ideas that are super important to understand. My conjecture is that these ideas are important to understand even before learning syntax in a particular platform (e.g., Scratch, etc).


So stay tuned as I begin my sporadic new series: programming for preschoolers! Activities to get the 3-7 set thinking about abstract programming concepts!

**Shout out to Alicia Chang at Google for random conversations long ago about programming for kids!!!

double breakfast all the way…

Anyone who knows my boys in person knows that they can PUT AWAY FOOD like nobody’s business. Cogsci-preschooler used to drink like 12 to 16 oz of milk with almost every meal. EVERY MEAL. (In the last year or so, his milk consumption has gone down to more normal levels… more like 6-8 oz per meal). Cogsci-toddler can hold his own too. He will request a bowl of rice after eating a piece of pizza. When I go to pick them up from Sunday school, all the other kids have finished their snacks but my boys are going around and eating other kids’ leftover snacks.

IMG_1177   IMG_1172
IMG_1176   IMG_1171

One thing I’m grateful for is that their preschool provides high quality breakfast, lunch, and snack! (To me, that is the definition of a high quality preschool!) Sometimes pretty fancy too like turkey bacon quiche or grilled tilapia with mango salsa. (There are also mundane meals like oatmeal or spaghetti but still, cooked on site, coordinated with the CalStateLA Nutrition dept, and, most importantly, easy-peasy for me!) But cogsci-preschooler loves asking for DOUBLE BREAKFAST. Breakfast at home AND breakfast at school. Geez. Endless pit. I’ll give him a hardboiled egg or piece of toast or slice of apple just to appease him until we get to school. Double breakfast, it’s always been this concept that only existed between me and cogsci-preschooler…

SO I THOUGHT! Today Aaron Carroll in NYTimes’ data-driven section (the UpShot) recently wrote a post about the lack of data on the supposed benefits of breakfast. He cites this study that reports this in the abstract:

“…there was an increased odds of overweight/obesity among frequent skippers compared with double breakfast eaters (emphasis theirs! not mine!)…”

Double breakfast eaters!?! That’s a thing? Amazeballs!

The real point of Aaron Carroll’s UpShot article was that these are just correlations so we don’t know if eating double breakfast causes kids to avoid obesity… but I was just proud that my kid had a category! DOUBLE BREAKFAST ALL THE WAY ACROSS THE SKY…

“i believe in molecules”

So cogsci-toddler has this weird fascination with molecules. He heard in a book (Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers) that “M” is for “molecules” and everything is made of “matter” and “matter is made of molecules” and now he keeps asking me if stuff is made of molecules.


“Is that cup made of molecules?”

“Is rice made of molecules?”

“Is water made of molecules?”

“What do molecules look like?”

The weird part of all this is that molecules are a weird thing for anyone to believe in if you think about it. We can’t see them. It’s hard to provide evidence for them. It’s pretty theoretical.

Also to throw another nugget into the mix, our family is pretty religious so in addition to pushing the concept of molecules, we also push the concept of God. My sense is that cogsci-toddler believes in God the same way he believes in molecules… Because he read about it in some book and mom backed up the book’s interpretation of those concepts.

If you know of any good youtube videos of molecules, Amos is keen to hear about your recommendations.

babies and morality

Internally, I’m a pretty amoral person. I know better than to engage in actually illicit activities, but I take joy in trying to think of scams (e.g., ways to get more free parking, ways to avoid paying shipping, etc).

In my pursuit to raise kids who have a better moral compass than I do, I’m always interested in research on the development of morality. Here is some good/bad news on that front.

A study in Cognition, Tasimi and Wynn showed 12- and 13-month-olds infants puppets that were helpers (they helped another puppet prop open a difficult box) or hinderers (they slammed the box closed on another puppet). When the helper puppet offered 1 cracker and the hinderer offered 2, infants rejected the large offering. Win for the helpful puppet!

But when the hinderer offered 8 (to the helper puppet’s 1)… the babies revealed a different pattern of preference… But can you blame them??? EIGHT CRACKERS!!!


Check out the online article’s supplementary movies in Appendix A!

Thanks to super surgeon/academic mom Joan Ko for the heads up on the article!

Is knowledge its own reward?

So I’ve been grappling (solely in my head) with issues of intrinsic motivation and reward… how do I use rewards in a “wise” way?

One interesting way to think about this question comes from Aubry Alvarez and Amy Booth at Northwestern University. They did a genius study where they asked 3-5 year olds to complete a boring task (placing pegs into a pegboard); afterward they will all be shown a new animal. For some children they offered an additional reward. There was a physical reward condition, “finish this and I will give you a sticker”; and two separate knowledge reward conditions, “finish this and I will tell you a cool fact about the animal.”

These researchers capitalized on previous work that shows that children have a preference for causal, explanatory facts over less causal facts; children wanna know more about how the world works! So in one knowledge reward condition, children were told a causally-rich factthis animal has things on its back that squirts green slime at bad animals when they get too close. In the knowledge reward condition, children were told a causally-weak fact — this animal has things on its back that turn green and slimy when it grows up.

Here’s the cool result:

figure 1.png

Causal facts are the best reward (for getting these preschoolers to persist on a boring task) and statistically indistinguishable from stickers!

The authors note that even though these causal facts may be reducing the intrinsic interest in the pegboard task itself (boohoo), at least this kind of reward is consistent with a broader “pleasure of learning”! Even though rewards might reduce interest in the task at hand, perhaps a reward like this one might support interest in more learning! This is a trade-off I’m more willing to take.
To me, I think thinking about causality has also made me realize why I think melanin is a more satisfying answer to young children’s race questions! It’s a causal explanation (e.g., melanin as protection from sun; folks from sunnier places have more melanin). I wish I could get a student interested in knowing whether causal explanations helps kids be less racist than non-causal ones (which I mostly find in these race books — “different races are beautiful”).

So for the question, “Is knowledge its own reward?” the answer turns out to be YES! But only some kinds of knowledge!!!

[Here’s a blog post by Garth Sundem on the same study from Psychology Today.]

Sticker Chart to nowhere

[excerpt from article] But advocates of sticker charts often neglect to mention their potential hazards, leaving parents surprised when the method backfires. Not surprisingly, I frequently hear complaints from parents about sticker charts gone awry. One mother who was initially pleased with the results of her sticker-chart system said that when she asked her 8-year-old son to stop what he was doing and help his younger brother clean up a spill, he responded: “What will you give me?”

Ah. Behaviorism. Anyone remember from their Psych 101 class B.F. Skinner? (Full disclosure: He is my cognitive science great great grandfather.) The basic idea behind behaviorism is that rewarding a behavior will promote it and punishing/ignoring that behavior will discourage it. It’s simple and usually really effective.

Cogsci-preschooler (henceforth referred to as #1) has had a bit of a rough time adjusting to cogsci-baby (henceforth #2). For the most part they have a grand old time playing in the same vicinity as one another. But there are a lot of stressful moments in our house that go something like this: #2 has an object, #1 snatches object and runs away, #2 cries. In addition to that there are headlocks disguised as hugs, blocking of #2’s path, taking #2’s half-eaten snack, etc. We try to explain to #1 how upset #2 feels, how it’s not nice to take toys from others, how it’s important to observe how someone else reacts… but with little respite.


Classic headlock-hug.

So we resorted to a sticker chart (we have three categories that can receive rewards: 1. staying in bed all night, 2. being a good helper, and 3. being a good big brother). It’s mostly been a wash. I don’t think it seems to impact his behavior in a positive way (that is, we have not seen an observable improvement in these three areas) AND now here’s this Atlantic article warning that we might actually reward away these formerly intrinsically motivated pro-social behaviors! ACK! DOUBLE ACK!

child1.png   child2

I’m not sure if we’re going to do the sticker chart again but as a cognitive scientist, here is my advice for avoiding the pitfalls of the sticker chart. Don’t be consistent in your rewards. Reward sporadically (e.g., 80% of the time). Forget to reward once in a while.

Sounds counterintuitive but here is the reason why. When you reward for the behavior consistently, they begin to expect that the reward follows the behavior. But if you reward inconsistently, you help foster an initial desire to get the reward but without the expectation that there will always be a reward. Score 1 pt for slightly forgetful and inconsistent parenting!

Independent kids: Only in Japan

Just thought this juxtaposition was interesting in The Atlantic.

For Western kids, parents are so overprotective that to let your kids roam free, you have to be an ideologically “free-range parent” or go to special playgrounds that are designed to promote independence. All this to raise independent kids who will grow up to be presumably independent adults.

In Japan, they have a reality show that sends toddlers out to run errands (Hajimete no Otsukai, or My First Errand) and kids clean their own school’s toilets. All this to raise kids who will conform and cooperate in society. And this cooperative society allows for such independence.

Watching this errand show makes me think… it would be so nice if I could send Amos and Nathan out to buy groceries! Go to Costco guys! Get some milk and frozen berries! But knowing Amos he would just spend the whole time buying/eating snacks.

Toddler’s Guide to Skin Color

It would be so great to have a book series of difficult/controversial topics for toddlers… It would be like those “Idiot’s Guide” books, e.g.,Climate change for toddlers! Death for toddlers! Social security for toddlers! High frequency trading for toddlers!

Anyway, in this draft of my non-existent book, I would focus first on answering this non-controversial question: Why do people have different skin color? My assumption is that this is what a lot of kids are actually curious about. So here goes my first draft of…

A toddler’s guide to skin color (alternate title, Melanin: The truth is only skin deep)

Skin colors range from very light to very dark. People can have light skin, medium skin, or dark skin and everything in between. Ever wonder where skin gets its color?

Melanin is what gives skin its special hue! Melanin is natural pigment in your skin made by special cells called melanocytes.

Most people have about the same number of melanocytes but not everybody makes the same amount of melanin. The darker your skin, the more melanin you have. The lighter your skin, the less melanin you have.

In fact, melanin also gives hair and eyes their color. Other animals have melanin too! The feathers on birds have melanin in them and even bananas make a type of melanin when they turn brown.

But wait! There is a lot more to melanin than just coloration! Melanin helps protect our skin from the sun. When we are in the sun, our melanocytes start making more melanin to absorb the sun’s rays. This is why we get darker after spending more time in the sun. The melanin gives us more protection right when we need it.

Sometimes when we are in the sun too long, our skin feels like it is burning. That’s because melanin isn’t strong enough to completely protect your skin. To help your skin out, make sure you use sunscreen or wear a hat if you are going to be out in the sun for a long time.


Many people with brown skin have ancestors that came from very hot places in the world. Their skin make more melanin so that the hot sun won’t burn them easily. Many people with lighter skin have ancestors that came from colder lands. They didn’t need as much melanin because the sun’s rays were not as strong where they lived.

People come in many beautiful combinations of skin, hair, and eye colors that range from very light to very dark. And now you know the true story of melanin that causes these different colors!

Now we need other books that talk about other issues related to skin color of course (e.g., Slavery explained to toddlers!) but I think something like this would help us all begin to have a conversation about skin color. I’m definitely looking for feedback from folks too — what’s missing? what’s inaccurate? what could be said better?

And hey, if there are any interested/inspired illustrators out there, leave a comment!

**Thank you to V.M. for the helpful suggestions!