Parents Results Sheet-Executive Functions Research Spring 2019

Study results: Working memory and resistance to interference

Parent results letter sheet Updating task Spring 2019

Dear Parent/Caregiver,

Last year you and your child participated in one of our studies funded by the European Research Council on children’s working memory and attention shifting. We would like to say a huge thank you again for participating and supporting our research and we hope that you and your child have enjoyed taking part in this study. We are delighted to inform you that we have finished this study and are able to present you with some interesting results.

What was the study about?

We are interested in the development of working memory in children. Working memory is the ability to hold some information in your mind and to manipulate it in order to carry out a task. For example, if we want to sum the numbers 6, 7, and 5 in our head, we could first add 6 and 7, and then add 5 to the result. Therefore, we need to process information (i.e., create the sum of 6 and 7) while at the same time keeping the remaining number (5) in our heads. Working memory is at the core of so many cognitive abilities (e.g., language, playing instruments, learning, etc), but researchers do not know much yet about the development of working memory in early years. This is partly because many standard working memory tests pose great demands on verbal or numerical abilities and therefore do not work well with young pre-schoolers who are still developing in these areas.

What was the aim of the study?

The aim of our study was to create a new working memory task suitable for children aged 3-5 years, i.e., a task that has only little language demands. For this, we created an “Interference task”. One hallmark of working memory capacity is how good we are at resisting distraction when we are trying to hold some information in our mind. For example, adding numbers when at the same time listening to the news is harder than when it’s quiet in the room. However, some people can cope with this interfering information better than others! In order to measure children’s developing working memory capacities, we created a new task measuring resistance to interference.

We also included another working memory task (“Scrambled box task”), which has already been used by other researchers and which we used as a basis for creating the interference task.

 What did your child do?

The study consisted of three tasks, created as games for children in which they could win stickers. There was a standard working memory test which used little verbal instructions, our new task measuring resistance to interference, and another task on attention shifting which we analysed together with data from other children. In this letter, we will focus on the working memory tasks, but if you would like to get more information about the attention shifting task, don’t hesitate to contact us!

In the Scrambled box task, your child was presented with a cardboard platform on which 8 different boxes were placed in a line (see image below). The experimenter put a sticker in each box, closed the boxes, and then asked the child to select one box to find a sticker. After the child got the first sticker, the experimenter put a screen between the child and the boxes and then scrambled the boxes out of the child’s view. Then the screen was removed and the child asked to pick another box. In order to win as many stickers as possible, children have to use working memory: they have to hold in mind the information about which boxes they have already chosen (so that they can avoid making a repeated pick) and they have to update this information round by round.

Scrambled box task







Our Interference task was similar to the scrambled box task. In this task, your child was playing two scrambled box tasks in parallel! There were two platforms next to each other with 4 boxes on each platform (see image below). Children started with one platform and picked one box. Then this platform was screened off and the children were asked to pick a box on the second platform. While the child was choosing, the experimenter scrambled the boxes on platform 1 behind the screen. After the child has chosen the box on platform 2, the experimenter moved the screen from platform 1 to platform 2 and asked children to pick another box from platform 1. Thus, children were switching back and forth between platforms. We were interested in children’s performance on platform 1 – in order to win as many stickers in as few rounds as possible children needed to not only hold in mind and update the information about the boxes, but also had to resist the potentially distracting information about the boxes on platform 2.

Importantly, we used two versions of the interference task. In Figure 2 you see the easy version, in which the boxes on platform 2 are different from those on platform 1. Your child also played a hard version in which the four boxes on platform 2 were exactly the same as those on platform 1. In this study we investigated how difficult the games were for the children and whether the difficult version was indeed harder to solve than the easier version of the game.

Our new interference task (easy version)







Results and conclusion

50 children took part in our study, tested in 7 nurseries in small and medium-sized towns in Scotland.

Scrambled box task:

Children had a maximum of 11 rounds to empty the 8 boxes. We found that half of the children (53%) were able to get all 8 stickers within 11 or fewer rounds. The children who got all the stickers needed on average 9 rounds to do so, i.e., most children only made one or two mistakes. However, solving the task perfectly, i.e., with making no mistake at all, was difficult: only 29% of children got all stickers without making a single mistake.

These results are similar to what other researchers have found before using the same task.

Interference task:

In line with our expectations, results showed that children found emptying the boxes on platform 1 more difficult when the boxes on the distractor platform were the same colours as those on platform 1 compared to when they were different. When the boxes were different, 62% of the children found all stickers (and 40% did so without making any mistake), while it was only 30% when the boxes were the same (and only 11% of children emptied all boxes without making a mistake). Importantly, the tasks were neither too easy nor too difficult for the children but yielded variance between children. Therefore, we can use this task in future studies to assess working memory in young children and to relate their working memory performance to other cognitive skills such as problem-solving, planning or causal understanding. Since the interference tasks does not use a lot of instructions, we can also use this task for research with even younger children, individuals with language impairments or deaf individuals, for which there is a shortage of working memory tests. We can also use the task with animals such as our closest living relatives, the great apes, to investigate whether and how human working memory is different.

This study is now finished. Its results will inform future studies in our project. We are also aiming to publish the results of this study in an academic journal; if the study is accepted for publication, we would contact you again to share with you the final journal article.

If you have any questions or would like to know more, do not hesitate to contact us. If you want to learn more about our research, please visit the University of St Andrews’ Baby and Child Lab website: (or just google “ABC lab St Andrews”) where you can also sign up to our Research database and follow our ABC Lab page on Facebook.

Thank you very much again for your interest in and support of our study. I hope you enjoyed being part of psychological research!

Kind regards,

Eva Reindl (PhD)

 Contact Details

Researcher:                        Dr Eva Reindl [email protected], phone: 07501 390026

Principal investigator:    Dr Amanda Seed [email protected]