Using economic theory to understand children's risky visuomotor decisions

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Clinical Health and Educational Psych

Abstract

In playgrounds, traffic and around the house, we are at continuous risk of bodily injury. Children are particularly accident-prone, as reflected in the disproportionally high accident-rates of pedestrians aged 15 year and younger. In recent years many researchers, including myself, have made considerable strides in understanding how visuomotor abilities improve across development. Despite these advances in understanding, current approaches do not consider how children adjust for their changing abilities to avoid unnecessary bodily risk during everyday visuomotor decisions. For example, children are less efficient than adults at avoiding incoming traffic when crossing busy roads. Do they account for this correctly by waiting for larger gaps between cars before crossing?

Economic decision-making theories will be employed to model children's visuomotor choices. Economists identify the best financial investments by trading-off probabilities of positive and negative monetary outcomes. Likewise, such tactics can identify the best movement strategy (e.g., when to cross) that maximises safety and efficiency (e.g., avoids accidents but utilises safe gaps in traffic). This has proven very effective for modelling mature visuomotor behaviour, showing that adults often choose movements that optimise performance. Recently I pioneered this approach with children, showing that children aged 6 to 11 years make riskier visuomotor choices than adults during manual reaching. To understand and reduce the effects of risky action selection on childhood injury, we must characterise more broadly how visuomotor decision-making develops, and understand which neurocognitive processes drive this change. A combination of precise behavioural tests, mathematical modelling and neuroimaging will be used to address these fundamental questions.

This proposal consists of 3 main objectives that each form a necessary step towards understanding children's movements under real risk in real world situations; These are to (1) characterise children's risky visuomotor decisions in realistic circumstances, including whole-body movements and poor eye-sight, (2) identify which basic mental processes underlie children's immature visuomotor choices, and (3) investigate how these might be improved through training. By characterising changes in visuomotor decision-making in detail at the behavioural and neural level, these objectives will significantly advance our understanding of the developing visuomotor system in action and the mechanisms of visuomotor decision-making. Moreover, this project has great translational potential for improving childhood safety and well being in everyday life, by informing educational programs and generating new ideas for interventions to improve safety.

Planned Impact

This project aims to determine how decisions about how and when to move the body (i.e., to reach goals and avoid accidents) become optimised during childhood. There are several non-scientific beneficiaries of this work:

1) Traffic Safety Policy Officers: This work is of great interest to policy-makers concerned with child safety and risk-prevention. In the "Road Safety Policy" published by the UK's Department of Transport as well as in the Dutch government's "strategic traffic safety plan 2008-2020", children are identified as a focus point because this age category shows disproportionally high accident-rates in both countries. Developing age-appropriate training programs and improving understanding of the causes of accidents, are identified as specific action points. The objectives of this project are therefore directly relevant to societal needs prioritised by governmental policymakers both in- and outside the UK.

2) Traffic Safety Organisations: The gained knowledge will also be of great interest to traffic safety organisations and initiatives such as "THINK" and "Road Safety GB". "THINK" is the main developer of traffic education materials for primary school children in the UK, and Road Safety GB takes charge of regional traffic education and is involved in the assessment and improvement of child safety in public areas. In pursuit of these goals, both organisations are continuously looking for new didactic insights and tools that assess safety effectively (think.direct.gov.uk; roadsafetygb.org.uk). The current project is highly relevant to these activities, as it focuses on almost unexplored aspects of visuomotor behaviour in childhood, and thus may open up new avenues for the development of education and risk-assessment tools.

3) Children, Families and Schools: The proposed research takes steps towards understanding the unnecessary risks children take in their everyday visuomotor behaviour, and how this might be improved through training. Families with children, and the schools these children attend are therefore a third group that stands to benefit from this work.

4) Athletes and Circus Performers: For all athletes, it is important to maximise the chance of successful action outcomes (e.g., scoring a goal) by choosing optimal movements. This is particularly true for circus artists, who often engage in extremely dangerous visuomotor activities. For these individuals, reducing the chance of failure can be vital, and forms a major part of their training. The work described in this proposal is therefore of interest to this group, in offering a new scientific perspective on their day-to-day activities.

5) Patients Groups at Potential Risk of Poor Visuomotor Decision-Making: The experiments described in this proposal can in the future be used to investigate which clinical groups are at risk of making inefficient movement choices. Identifying such groups can help identify individuals who may benefit most from training to improve this ability. While clinical testing is not the aim of this project, the experiments already set the stage for follow-up research with two clinical target groups (i.e., individuals with ADHD and with recent clinical vision loss). My strong connections with Moorfields Eye Hospital will help me recruit vision patients. My collaborations with UCL colleagues investigating developmental disorders (i.e., Prof. Annette Karmiloff-Smith, Prof. Janette Atkinson, Dr. Liz Pellicano and Prof. Essi Viding, mentor on this project) will help me reach individuals with ADHD.
 
Description During the first 2 years of the grant, we have found in 4 studies, that children up unto the age of 10 years made inefficient visuomotor decisions, possibly due to difficulties with integrating different types of probabilistic information. Specifically, children between ages 6-10 years sample too little information to maximise their performance in a visual localisation task, demonstrating inefficient visual information sampling (Jones, Landin, McLean, Juni, Maloney, Nardini & Dekker, under review). They also make suboptimal trade-offs in task where they need to decide when to stop looking and stop acting (Large and Dekker, in prep). Both inefficiencies add an unnecessary source of risk to child performance; given the quality of information present in their system, children could have performed better if they had used this information more efficiently to guide actions. We also found evidence for structural learning in childhood - whilst poor performance in childhood often is attributed to "noisier" averaging, we found evidence for use of a qualitatively different strategy - so while adults often come to the experiment with an immediate understanding of what the best strategy is to solve the task, this intuitive understanding may take many years to develop (Jones and Dekker, 2017). In a recent study (Jarvstadt, Mareschal, Dekker, Large, Hahn, in prep), we have investigated which processes may explain children's suboptimal motor strategies, and whether these generalise across decision-domains. Preliminary data suggest that children have difficulty finding the correct weighting between value and probability information to maximise outcome during movement and a gambling task - in our case because they underweight outcome and overweight probability information (i.e., they typically chose lotteries with a greater chance to win over those with a lower chance, irrespective of the size of the associated rewards). Individual strategies in decision-making are consistent across the two task domains. Interestingly, this behaviour mimics switching (rather than integration) strategies reported for sensory cue combination. Finally, we have recently tested whether inefficient visuomotor decisions in childhood persist in more naturalistic whole-body tasks. Specifically, we have tested if participants can adjust their body position to trade-off the chance of catching balls that fall from two chutes for points, to maximise their overall score. We find that the adults we have tested so far are surprisingly efficient at this task - they position themselves in a way that is optimal given their individual ball-catching style (unpublished data accepted for a talk at Vision Sciences Society). In a recent study we have directly compared decision-making on visuomotor lotteries with decision-making in economic lotteries two tasks that are closely matched. We find that decisions across these two domains are both suboptimal in early childhood and only gradually improve, and also that they are correlated, suggesting that similar processes constrain decision-performance in general. The next step is to investigate whether the same brain areas are engaged by these tasks, which we will measure using fMRI.
Exploitation Route After the end of the grant, we hope to organise a workshop to facilitate use of this information by traffic organisations and other scientists.
Sectors Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Government, Democracy and Justice

 
Description Summer 2017, I have attended a traffic conference where I presented data and discussed the practical use of my research on traffic safety research in children. Since, I have discussed future research directions with employees of the SWOV, a Dutch government-linked research institution that does policy-informing research, and consulted on how too incorporating my "ideal observer" modelling approach to visuomotor performance in childhood in their work. In fall 2018, I have had a meeting with traffic specialists of the SWOV about a project on use of audiovisual information in cycling and the effects on child safety, building directly onto work in my ESRC grant.
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Policy & public services

 
Description development of cumulative allocation choices 
Organisation New York University
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have currently co-written a grant application and submitted it to the NSF
Collaborator Contribution Prof. Maloney has designed the task, collected pilot data from adults, took lead on writing a grant application, and submission to the NSF
Impact none so far
Start Year 2019
 
Description risk-taking during whole body movements in virtual reality 
Organisation Free University of Amsterdam
Department Faculty of Human Movement Sciences
Country Netherlands 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have taken the lead on designing the study, developing the methods, running the experiment and collecting data. We are collaborating with a team in the Netherlands at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
Collaborator Contribution The experts in the Netherlands are advising us on data analysis and design choices, as they have experience with whole-body movement tasks and their challenges.
Impact Paper accepted for a talk at Vision Sciences Society, Florida, 2018.
Start Year 2017
 
Description STEM workshop for teenage girls 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact I provided a STEM tutorial on science and neuroimaging for teenage girls from impoverished backgrounds with promise to pursue careers in science. I am now mentoring one of the girls in her further career development and she has requested a work experience placement in my lab
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Show and Tell at Henry Wellcome Collection 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Research was presented in an interactive way using a virtual reality set-up at a Henry Wellcome Collection Late event. There was great interest from the general public, and many expressed to have learnt a new piece of information about development of visuomotor behaviour in children.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://wellcomecollection.org/fridaylate
 
Description Workshops at London Primary Schools 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact We provided workshops at local London schools, in which children could take part in real experiments on visuomotor development and decision-making. We also gave age-appropriate talks in classes and during school assemblies on the scientific process, visuomotor development, and the brain.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018
URL http://www.williampatten.hackney.sch.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Patten-Pages-Issue-108.pdf
 
Description workshop with Circus Company Extraordinary Bodies 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact I have recently set up a first step towards collaboration with Extraordinary Bodies, a circus company existing of performers with and without special needs. I am acting as scientific consultant for a new show on accounting for risk and uncertainty in the face of a changing body, whether with ageing or due to a disease or accident.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://www.extraordinarybodies.org.uk/
 
Description workshop with children with vision impairment 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Patients, carers and/or patient groups
Results and Impact In preparation of follow-up funding I attended a meeting with children with visual impairments and did activities with them to investigate how their vision loss affects their visuomotor performance in everyday tasks
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019