A child’s ability to interpret an illustration—identifying the object or person it represents—is based on the physical characteristics of the picture, in addition to social-cognitive processes.
On one hand, children can use a drawing’s actual resemblance to an object to make their interpretation. For instance, if a picture looks like a dog, then they’ll call it a dog.
However, pictures can be abstract, and don’t always closely resemble what they are meant to depict.
In such instances, psychologists Paul Bloom and Lori Markson have shown that as long as a child is told of the artist’s intention—for example, that they meant to draw a mouse—the child will be able to correctly interpret the drawing, even if it’s just a disorganized collection of shapes.
Employing the techniques of Bloom and Markson, this video investigates the criteria 3- and 4-year-olds use to identify what illustrations represent, describes the experimental design, how to collect and interpret data, and notes that similar methods can help elucidate how people understand symbols, abstract art, and physical objects.
In this experiment, 3- to 4-year-old children complete three tasks—size, oddity, and drawing—in which they must interpret hand-drawings based on intent and analogy rather than physical resemblance.
During the first part of the drawing task, children—generally thought of as unskilled artists—are asked to draw two sets of very similar items on separate sheets of paper: a lollipop and balloon, and a self-portrait and picture of the researcher involved. These pictures are put aside until the second phase of this task, which occurs at the end of the experiment.
In the intervening period, the size task is performed. This involves sequentially showing children four sets of researcher-created hand-drawings, each of which consists of two differently sized shapes—a small and large version of the same shape, side-by-side.
The trick here is that children are told the pictures were created by a gender-matched child who had trouble drawing with a broken arm. They’re further informed that the illustrations are meant to represent a small and large object, such as a mouse and an elephant.
For each given set, children are asked what each picture represents.
The idea is that children will use what they know about the injured artist’s intent—what they were aiming to draw—to interpret the small and large shapes as being the smaller and bigger animals, like a mouse and elephant, respectively.
In this task, the number of trials in which children correctly identify both drawings is the dependent variable.
This is followed by the oddity task, where children are again presented with four sets of drawings, which they are told were generated by the same broken-armed child.
The difference is that these illustration sets consist of four same-sized ovals, but one oval is in a different orientation than the other three.
Depending on the trial, children are informed that these pictures are meant to depict three of the same, and one dissimilar, object—like three cookies and an orange.
For each set, they are asked what the unique, rotated oval represents. Again, it’s expected that children will use the artist’s intent to identify the oval that’s unalike as being the singular object named
The number of trials where the atypical oval—and by extension the three similarly-positioned ovals—are correctly interpreted serves as the dependent variable for this task.
In the last phase of the experiment, children are presented with the pictures they initially drew, and asked what each represents.
Unlike the size and oddity tasks, here children must use memory of their previous intentions to interpret their own drawings.
In this case, the dependent variable is the number of trials where a child correctly identifies the pictures they drew. Children are expected to remember their original intent and perform more accurately here versus the other two analogy-based tasks.
Before the experiment begins, organize the drawing stimuli into two sets: one to be used in the size task, and the other for the oddity task. In addition, prepare crayons and four sheets of blank paper for the child to use when drawing.
Greet the child when they arrive, and present them with crayons and blank paper.
For the first part of the drawing task, ask the child to create—in a random order and each in a different color of crayon—a balloon and lollipop, as well as a self-portrait and picture of the researcher. Afterwards, gather the four drawings and place them off to the side.
Then, begin the size task by showing the child one of the drawing sets with a large and small shape, and tell them that these images are meant to represent a spider and a tree.
Gesture to each shape on the paper, and ask the child what they represent. If the child is reluctant to respond at first, encourage them by asking if they can point to the tree and to the spider.
Repeat this procedure for the remaining three sets of large and small shapes, and for each of these trials, tell the child that the drawings represent either a house and dog, elephant and mouse, or bicycle and flower. Record their answers using audio or video.
After all four trials of the size task have been completed, start the oddity task. For the first trial, tell the child that the person who created the pictures meant to draw a sock and three shoes.
Point to the dissimilar oval in the illustration, and ask the child what this shape represents. If the child hesitates in their response, inquire if they can point to the sock in this picture.
Repeat these steps for the remaining three oddity task trials, telling the child that the ovals represent different objects or animals in each. Again, record the child’s responses.
Approximately 15 min after the start of the experiment, perform the second phase of the drawing task by showing the child—in a random order—the four drawings they initially created. For each, ask the child what they drew and record their responses.
When the three tasks have been completed, have two independent raters code all of the responses, in order to determine their accuracy.
To analyze the data, average the number of trials in which children correctly interpreted the drawings by age and task.
For both age groups, conduct t-tests against chance performance for each of the three tasks.
Notice that the majority of pictures shown during the trials of the drawing and size tasks were correctly interpreted by 4-year-olds, reflecting significantly better than chance performance. Similar results were also obtained for these tasks in the 3-year-old group.
However, notice that although the 4-year-olds correctly interpreted drawings in the oddity task at a level significantly above chance, the 3-year-olds performed only as well as at this task as they would have by chance alone.
Collectively, these results suggest that children as young as age 3 can use what they know of an artist’s intent to interpret drawings, even if the pictures are themselves ambiguous. This ability is better developed at age 4 though.
Now that you’re familiar with how to design an experiment to explore the relationship between artists’ intentions and a child’s ability to interpret drawings, let’s look at other ways researchers assess how knowledge of intent can shape human perceptions.
In certain instances, drawings can serve as symbols, for example, to represent locations.
As a result, some researchers are trying to assess how children come to understand symbolic representations, such as maps.
In particular, psychologists have determined that what matters in such cases is not the appearance or shape of a symbol, but rather shared knowledge about what a symbol is meant to represent.
There is also interest in whether knowing an artist’s intent contributes to both children’s and adults’ ability to appreciate abstract art.
To this end, some psychologists are examining how the title of an art piece affects a person’s enjoyment of it.
Finally, although applied here to drawings, psychologists are also looking at how knowledge of a creator’s intent enables people of all ages to categorize and use physical objects.
For example, if an object was created and sold with the intent of being a vase—but it resembles a tall drinking glass—most people would still categorize it as a vase, and use it to hold flowers.
Many researchers are extending this work to compare the degrees to which knowledge of intent and morphological features of an object—like size, shape, and color—factor in this categorization process.
You’ve just watched JoVE’s video exploring how an illustrator’s intent influences a child’s ability to identify an illustration. By now, you should know how to present hand-drawings to children, and collect and assess data relating to their interpretations. You should also have an appreciation of how knowledge of the creator’s intent—whether for physical or symbolic objects—influences a person’s ability to use or understand an object.
Thanks for watching!