Monday, 13 November 2006

“If I cover my eyes I’ll be hidden” – how young children understand visibility

Young children aged between two and four years believe that you only have to hide your head to become invisible – if your legs are on view, it doesn’t matter, you still can’t be seen.

That’s according to Nicola McGuigan and Martin Doherty who say this is probably because young children think of ‘seeing’ in terms of mutual engagement between people. It explains why kids often think they can’t be seen if they cover their eyes.

The researchers placed a Teletubby toy in various degrees of concealment behind a screen on the opposite side of a table to a Care Bear toy. If, from the perspective of the Bear, the Telebubby was completely hidden, completely visible, or just its head was showing, the children were able to accurately judge whether the Bear could see the Telebubby (at least 86 per cent accuracy). By contrast, when the Teletubby’s legs were showing but its head was hidden, the children wrongly tended (49 per cent of the trials) to say it could not be seen by the Bear.

A second experiment showed young children don’t make the same mistake when judging if inanimate objects are hidden – they realise that if any bit is poking out, the object will remain visible to an observer.

“In the case of a human target (including themselves), children may misconstrue ‘see’ as mutual engagement. If so, when covering their eyes they are really attempting to avoid engagement with others – and in this sense, their action can be effective”, the researchers concluded.

McGuigan, N. & Doherty, M.J. (2006). Head and shoulders, knees and toes: Which parts of the body are necessary to be seen? British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 24, 727-732.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Unknown said...

As someone who has shed hair in the past when writing about Piaget et al. and the visual theories in development - I found this summary and topic to be delightful.

Regards - Shinga

Anonymous said...

This is also why it's so much fun to play hide-and-seek with a few 2 to 4 year olds. Their idea of hidden and their ability to "find you" are at variance from yours. And if you start to laugh uncontrollably, they laugh right along (like when you only hide your head and they can't find you.)

Anonymous said...

I think that this research should be aimed at children of a younger age, as older cildren from 3 say are more likely to know what is really hidden and what is not. From my expereince it seems to be children under the age of 2 that do not have full udnerstanding of visibilty. Although i have to agree that it is fun to play peek-a-boo!
Regards Lisa

Anonymous said...

Does the fact that young children make the mistake of seeing everything from their own perspective not have an effect? For example, the Smarties task where young children find out that there are pencils in a Smarties box, but think that their friend, who has not yet seen the box, will think that there are pencils in there also. Surely certain ages of children, if they cannot see something, will believe that the other bear will not be able to see it either?

Anonymous said...


"children may misconstrue 'see' as mutual engagement. If so, when covering their eyes they are really attempting to avoid engagement with others - and in this sense, their action can be effective", the researchers concluded.

Isn't this what Jack Straw has been saying - though he applied the thought to adults ...

I have supposed that, as a London cyclist, my dislike of cars with black windows is because they deny eye contact with drivers/even passengers - you can't see what they're up to - it could be something dangerous ...

Mallory Wober

Anonymous said...

I believe this to be a very interesting research on the topic of egocentrism. I have made a funny connection concerning this subject and seasonal clock changes at

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