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Children are more creative when they cooperate than when they compete

22 September 2017

Young children come up with more arguments in support of their case when they argue as a team instead of against each other.

That is the conclusion of research published today in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology by a team represented by Andreas Domberg from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.

In two studies, the researchers recruited pairs of either five- or seven-year-old children who knew each other from their German kindergarten or primary school, and asked them to play a game involving a toy zoo.

In the first study, they had to find the most suitable homes in the zoo’s various enclosures for a whole bunch of animals. Here, the children were working either as partners, putting their heads together, or as opponents, trying to end up with more animals in their own half of the zoo.

An important rule of the game was that every decision to place an animal somewhere needed to be justified, and to this end, children received practice during a warm-up phase in what giving arguments sounds like.

From the discussion that developed during the actual game, the researchers identified and characterised all arguments that children used: Is the argument looking at a specific aspect of the problem—this enclosure being the right habitat, or with conspecifics, kin or predators in it, or the fact that you already have so many animals in your enclosures? Does the argument favour the speaker’s or the other child’s half of the zoo? Does the speaker point out how this enclosure fits well, or how that other enclosure cannot possibly work?

The researchers now compared how children produced arguments across age groups and between the cooperative and competitive setting. The results suggest that pairs playing the cooperative version of the game produced more arguments, on more diverse aspects, and that it did not matter if the proposed enclosure was on the speaker’s or their partner’s side.

In the second study, the zoo game was quite similar, but with a twist: One child individually learned a couple of convincing arguments that she could or could not use when playing the game with her peer.

The results suggested that children do withhold arguments of which we know they know them—but only seven-year-olds.

Andreas Domberg says:

“Our results suggest that children are more motivated to produce arguments when they are aiming at a good solution rather than at winning as individuals.

“When they were cooperating, children considered more possibilities for placing the toy animals, and they did not neglect or wilfully withhold arguments, acting in pursuit of the best solution for a common goal.”


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