Future-Oriented Cognition during Preschool Years: Cognitive Correlates and Cultural Contrast

Ding, Ning 

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The capacity to understand, construct, imagine and plan for the future goes hand in hand to scaffold and support future-oriented cognition. The development of future-oriented cognition undergoes critical changes during the preschool period and an emerging theme in developmental psychology is to elucidate its cognitive correlates. A significant oversight, however, is that the existing body of literature is reliant almost exclusively on data drawn from children from Western societies, with little evidence on children growing up in Eastern countries. The overarching aim of my thesis is to further our understanding of cognitive correlates and potential cultural contrast of future-oriented cognition. To this end I report four empirical studies testing and comparing pre- schoolers from Britain and mainland China on an array of future-oriented cognition tasks. In Chapter 2, I test Chinese pre-schoolers with a comprehensive and standardised task battery and they show age-related performance and developmental trajectory across different components of future-oriented cognition, which resembles that found for Western children. Performance on some tasks is significantly linked to children’s executive function ability but not with theory of mind competency. In Chapter 3, I utilise a delay choice paradigm modified from comparative research and Chinese pre-schoolers demonstrate greater capacity of delay of gratification compared to British counterparts when reward visibility is manipulated (though it has no significant effect on performance). Across both countries, pre-schoolers perform better when rewards vary in quality than in quantity and Chinese pre-schoolers’ delay of gratification is related to their inhibition ability. In Chapter 4, I focus on children’s understanding of changes in future preferences, finding that the developmental trajectories are universal between British and Chinese pre-schoolers. Children’s prediction of future preferences is more accurate for a peer than for themselves and performance is improved when children have first identified their current preferences before anticipating the future. Furthermore, inhibition and cognitive flexibility are associated with the prediction of children’s own, though not peers’ future preferences. In Chapter 5, I adopt a flexible future planning task in tool use context while addressing existing methodological critiques. British children show standard age-related developmental patterns with the novel task and their performance is unrelated to executive function and language competency. I conclude by discussing the implications of my findings and future directions for the research of future-oriented cognition in young children.

Clayton, Nicky
Developmental Psychology, Cognitive Development, Cross Cultural Research, Future-Oriented Cognition
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge