Young children are terrible at hiding

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

Young children are terrible at hiding:

Curiously, they often cover only their face or eyes with their hands, leaving the rest of their bodies visibly exposed.

For a long time, this ineffective hiding strategy was interpreted as evidence that young children are hopelessly “egocentric” creatures. Psychologists theorized that preschool children cannot distinguish their own perspective from someone else’s. Conventional wisdom held that, unable to transcend their own viewpoint, children falsely assume that others see the world the same way they themselves do. So psychologists assumed children “hide” by covering their eyes because they conflate their own lack of vision with that of those around them.

But research in cognitive developmental psychology is starting to cast doubt on this notion of childhood egocentrism. We brought young children between the ages of two and four into our Minds in Development Lab at USC so we could investigate this assumption. Our surprising results contradict the idea that children’s poor hiding skills reflect their allegedly egocentric nature.

Each child in our study sat down with an adult who covered her own eyes or ears with her hands. We then asked the child whether or not she could see or hear the adult, respectively. Surprisingly, children denied that they could. The same thing happened when the adult covered her own mouth: Now children denied that they could speak to her.

A number of control experiments ruled out that the children were confused or misunderstood what they were being asked. The results were clear: Our young subjects comprehended the questions and knew exactly what was asked of them. Their negative responses reflected their genuine belief that the other person could not be seen, heard, or spoken to when her eyes, ears, or mouth were obstructed. Despite the fact that the person in front of them was in plain view, they flatout denied being able to perceive her. So what was going on?

It seems like young children consider mutual eye contact a requirement for one person to be able to see another. Their thinking appears to run along the lines of “I can see you only if you can see me, too” and vice versa. Our findings suggest that when a child “hides” by putting a blanket over her head, this strategy is not a result of egocentrism. In fact, children deem this strategy effective when others use it.

Built into their notion of visibility, then, is the idea of bidirectionality: Unless two people make eye contact, it is impossible for one to see the other. Contrary to egocentrism, young children simply insist on mutual recognition and regard.

Children’s demand of reciprocity demonstrates that they are not at all egocentric.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Isn’t there a scene in one of the Hitchhiker’s Guide books where a tiger or something wraps a scarf around its head so that people cannot see him?

  2. Wilbur Hassenfus says:

    The hiding thing is a classic behavior in kittens as well. But since you can’t ask them about it, I’m going to stick with my prior that kittens are just retarded.

  3. Don says:

    According to the HHGG, the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal is so mind-bogglingly stupid that it thinks that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you. Therefore, the best defense against a Bugblatter Beast is to wrap a towel around your head.

  4. Alrenous says:

    Okay, but if parent A sends the kid to look for parent B, and the kid finds B covering their eyes, will they come back to A and say they couldn’t find B?

    If you then ask something like, “Where didn’t you see B?” will they be able to answer, “I didn’t see B in the parlour.” (With the candlestick.)

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