The Role of Inhibitory Control in Contrary-to-Fact Reasoning and Imagination in Young Children

Van Reet, Jennifer Lynn, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia
Lillard, Angeline, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia

Developing the ability to represent multiple states of the world is a major cognitive achievement in the preschool period. This research examines the role of two types of inhibitory control, conflict and delay, in 3- and 4-year-old children’s contrary-to-fact reasoning ability and their imagination ability, two skills which are thought to require the representation of alternatives to reality.

Study 1 tested whether conflict and delay inhibitory control were correlated with children’s ability to solve contrary-to-fact reasoning problems with and without instructions to imagine. Contrary to the hypotheses, conflict inhibitory control was correlated with success on syllogisms only in the with-imagination condition. Delay inhibitory control was positively correlated with success on syllogisms regardless of imagination condition. Lastly, children who heard the instruction to imagine the premises of the syllogisms scored lower on the first measure of conflict inhibitory control they completed.

Study 2 tested the hypothesis that imagination utilizes conflict inhibitory control and that taxing children’s imagination skills would result in lower conflict inhibitory control. No difference in conflict inhibitory control ability was found between children who experienced imagination tasks before or after conflict inhibitory control tasks. However, imagination scores did differ between these two groups: children who experienced imagination tasks first had lower imagination scores than those who experienced them second. Temperamental and cognitive explanations for this difference are discussed.

Study 3 sought to replicate the positive correlation between delay inhibitory control and success on contrary-to-fact syllogisms found in Study 1. This relationship was replicated for children 3 ½ years and younger. Yet, for older children, the opposite correlation was found.

The main conclusions from this work are the following: 1) conflict inhibitory control is positively associated with preschoolers’ pretense and imagination abilities, 2) delay inhibitory control is related to the ability to solve contrary-to-fact syllogisms, but that this relationship changes considerably with age, and 3) children’s temperament may play a role in children’s ability to consider novel or untrue information.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
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