Babies - natural born statisticians: study

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London, Apr 2 (UNI) Move over Aryabhatta, Pythagoras and Ramanujam. Infants are here to give competition to these great mathematicians! According to a recent study, babies are natural born statisticians.

A test of eight-month-olds has shown how they are able to work out the likelihood of an event occurring, based on their knowledge of what has come before, showing they have a working knowledge of probability and statistics years before they even go to school.

The study by Prof Fei Xu and Vashti Garcia at the University of British Columbia, did six experiments in which coloured ping pong balls were drawn from a box.

They found that the babies could intuitively predict the colour of ping-pong balls pulled out of a box, based on what they had seen before. ''The infants' performance in these studies is impressive,'' said the team.

The team measured this by studying how long the babies looked at the red and white ping-pong balls as they were taken out of the box.

If the box contained mostly red ping-pong balls, the infants looked longer if a mixture of mostly white ping-pong balls were pulled out compared to a mixture of mostly red ping-pong balls.

Conversely, if the infants were shown a mixture of mostly red ping-pong balls being pulled out, they expected to see the big box containing mostly red ping-pong balls.

The psychologists concluded in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that ''infants possess a powerful mechanism for inductive learning, either using heuristics or basic principles of probability''.

As for why many adults felt inadequate about their mathematical abilities, Prof Xu said, ''They are bad at probability judgements, but recent work suggests that the story is complicated. Adults can certainly do the simple tasks we present to infants, and there is new evidence suggesting that adults use statistical information to make inferences.'' Babies may be rational learners from very early in development because the ability to make predictions from a small sample is so central to survival, they argue.

''Our hunter-gatherer ancestors may have tasted a few berries on a tree and then decided that all berries from the same kind of tree are edible,'' said Prof Xu.

''They may have encountered a few friendly people from a neighbouring tribe and made the inference that people in that tribe are likely to be friendly in general,'' the Daily Telegraph quoted him as saying.

UNI XC RJ DB1907

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