Centration refers to the child only being able to focus their attention on one aspect of an object or situation. Usually, whichever attribute of the object is the most salient will attract the child’s focus and influence their judgment.
For example, imagine a scenario where a father presents his child with two slices of pizza that are of equal size. The father then cuts one of the slices into two smaller pieces.
If the child is experiencing centration, then the child may believe that they now have more pizza because they have more pieces, despite the fact that the total amount of pizza remains the same.
In this example, the child is demonstrating centration because they are focusing solely on the number of pieces and haven’t contemplated the amount of pizza in each slice.
Centration in Piaget’s Psychology
According to Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, centration is dominant during the preoperational stage (ages 2-7 years old).
The prefix “pre” is key to understanding this stage. It calls attention to the fact that children are not yet able to perform mental operations or logical reasoning.
The preoperational stage contains two substages: symbolic function (ages 2-4) and intuitive thought (ages 4-7).
During each substage, children will achieve several cognitive milestones.
The rate of reaching the different milestones depends on several factors, such as the child’s interaction with the environment and biological growth of the cerebral cortex.
1. Symbolic Function Substage (ages 2-4 years):
Language skills and symbolic thought are the two key developments in this substage.
Vocabulary will expand exponentially as the child interacts with adults and attempts to verbalize their thoughts and feelings.
Children will also enjoy symbolic play, which involves using objects to represent other things, such as when a carboard box becomes a house or fruit store.
However, children are still egocentric and have difficulty understanding the perspective of others.
2. Intuitive Thought Substage (ages 4-7 years):
The beginning of rational thinking emerges in this substage as children begin to ask “why” and “how” questions.
Piaget used the term “intuitive” because children did not actually understand the source of their knowledge.
As children develop more advanced cognitive skills, they will be able to overcome centration.
According to Piaget, by the concrete stage, children have overcome centration, a process which Piaget calls decentration.
- When Choosing Clothes: A child may want to buy a shirt that doesn’t fit because it is in their favorite color. They are unable to consider the shirt’s size because their thinking is dominated by the color.
- Taking Another Child’s Toy: A preschooler will take another child’s toy without asking not because they are selfish, but because their cognitive ability is so limited. They see the toy; they want the toy; they take the toy. They simply cannot consider other aspects of the situation. This is an example of centration in a social context.
- In Impression Formation: Adults can experience centration too. For example, when meeting a person with a unique facial feature, such as a terrible scar, it tends to draw a person’s focus. The feature is so salient that it can prevent people from processing other aspects of who the person is, such as their personality and character.
- Being First in Line: Children all push to be first in line, but can’t process the teacher’s instructions to order in terms of size, shortest to tallest. They are only able to think about one issue at a time, and in that moment, the issue is being first in line.
- Wanting the Longest Hot Dog: A child can choose either a long and skinny hot dog or a short and fat hot dog for dinner. They choose the long one because length is the most salient perceptual feature.
- All the Kids Want the Big Truck: The school playground has several toy trucks that kids can ride in. But they all want the biggest truck because its height is so salient.
- Choosing the Sparkly Hat: A mother wants their child to wear the warmer hat when playing outside, but the child always chooses the hat that sparkles, even though it is thinner.
- Choosing Playmates: All the kids want to be friends with Emily because she is the tallest student in the classroom.
- Using Food Coloring: One clever mom uses food coloring to make broccoli look yellow, their child’s favorite color. Even though the child knows its broccoli, all they see is yellow food.
- Big Bowl for a Big Tummy: When her child says he is very hungry, the mother puts his soup in a shallow, wide bowl to make it look like more. The span of the bowl is the most salient visual feature of the bowl, not the shallowness.
- Pushing Another Child: Even though a child knows they were accidentally tripped, they can only think about being hurt. So, they push the other child in retaliation.
- Not Just Another Pretty Face: Some models might feel disgruntled that others only see their physical beauty. People just can’t get passed their attractiveness and see them for who they are. They may be exceptionally talented or intelligent, but their most salient feature prohibits others from recognizing those attributes.
- When Sharing a Pizza: When feeding the family with a large pizza, it’s important to make sure the kids have equal amounts. If one child has three slices and the other has two, even though those two slices are very big, that child will think their sibling has more. The most salient feature is number of slices, not total amount.
Case Studies of Centration
1. Social Perception and Centration
Interpreting the actions of others requires taking into account numerous factors. There are the dynamics of the situation in which the other person’s behavior occurred, in addition to what is known about that individual.
Understanding all of that can be even more challenging for those that have intellectual disabilities (ID).
Leffert et al. (2010) presented children with and without ID with various video-taped vignettes.
Some vignettes depicted conflicting information regarding the actor’s benign intentions, insincere benign intentions, and salient negative cues regarding benign intentions.
After each vignette, participants were asked various questions about their interpretation of the actor’s behavior.
Results showed that:
“Children with ID were less likely than children without ID to interpret intentions accurately, not just when the social cues conveyed benign intentions, but also when mixed social cues conveyed hostile intentions” (p. 169).
The researchers concluded that:
“the relative salience of the negative event and the cues can affect interpretation accuracy for children with ID” (p. 169).
Intellectual impairment leads to centration focused on the most salient cues in a social situation.
2. The Salience of Perceptual Properties
Centration is a fundamental reason children fail to understand conservation. When presented with two glasses of liquid, the “tallness” feature of one of the glasses is too powerful for children to ignore.
Take this video as an example. After the mother has poured the glass of juice from the short to the tall glass, the child thinks the tall glass has more.
The mother asks the child to give a rationale, but the child cannot actually verbalize her logic. She simply points to the glass and says it has more.
Eventually the mom coaxes an explanation out of her daughter and she says that it is more because it is longer.
In the next task, the mother elongates one of two balls of playdough. The child almost immediately points to that one as having more, because it is “longer.”
Next, when presented with two rows of candy, the child counts each row and declares they are the same. But, when the mother spreads one row out, the child says that row has more. Even after she counts that row again, she still says it has more.
The perceptual property of length is too salient. The child is experiencing centration on that visual feature.
3. Centration and Money
Salience of a physical feature of an object or situation can be quite powerful. In some circumstances, it can defy logic and lead to irrational decisions.
Take the example presented in this short video. The adult displays one 50-dollar bill and next to it, displays two 20s and one 5-dollar bill.
When the mother asks the child which do they want, the child immediately points to the stack with the two 20s and 5-dollar bill.
When asked why, the child says “because it has more.”
Well, we are not sure if she is referring to more bills, or more money.
In Piagetian terms, we are likely to infer that she is experiencing centration and is only focused on the number of bills, not their actual total.
4. Centration in Marketing to Children
Marketing and advertising professionals are very knowledgeable of psychological principles. They understand the value of applying these principles to their craft to drive consumer behavior and improve profit margins.
For example, take this excerpt from the book What kids buy and why: The psychology of marketing to kids:
“An in-depth knowledge of the differences between individuals of different ages and developmental stages is critical…Chapters 4 through 8 detail each of the five developmental stages and provide all the information you should need in order to be accurate in age targeting” (Acuff, 2010, p. 29).
The book identifies several major figures in psychology, including Piaget, and draws connections between various psychological principles and key considerations in marketing strategy.
Moon (2010) is more specific, making a cautionary note regarding the use of sensory or emotional appeals in the marketing of unhealthy food choices targeting children:
“Considering children’s propensity of sensory-based processing and centration…these appeals might distract children from processing nutrition claims about products, especially when the claims are delivered in text or audio cues” (pp. 471-472).
5. When Designing Product Packaging
When developing product packaging, designers capitalize on centration in a variety of ways. They know that children can become fixated on particular stimulus features.
So, if the target market is kindergarten age girls, the package will consist of a particular color scheme that will “capture” their attention, such as bright pink.
For boys, it might be bright red and lots of sharp lines that convey the feeling of speed and movement.
The use of famous cartoon characters or superheroes can also have a tremendous impact on the child’s preferences. Once that familiar image on the package is encoded by the child, all other cognitive processing stops.
And lets not forget the power of height. Kindergarten age children are very impressed with height. So, packages will be designed to be tall to create the perception of “more” in the minds of children.
Although you may not hear the term “centration” being used during design meetings, the concept is being applied intuitively, and extensively.
Centration refers to the child’s inability to process multiple stimulus features simultaneously. They tend to focus on whichever perceptual property is the most salient.
This has been demonstrated in research on conservation. When presented with two objects, one tall and skinny, and one short and wide, a child will almost invariably think the tall one has a greater quantity.
Centration also has application in social perception. Young children, and even adults, can sometimes get “locked-in” on a particular salient feature of another person.
In a way, they become be blinded by that feature to the point that they fail to engage deeper cognitive processing.
Similarly, children with learning difficulties may be unable to accurately interpret social context and make inaccurate inferences regarding another child’s behavior.
Finally, centration is a useful tool in marketing and advertising to capture a child’s attention and help steer their purchasing behavior towards particular products.
Acuff, D. (2010). What kids buy and why: The psychology of marketing to kids. Simon and Schuster.
Leffert, J. S., Siperstein, G. N., & Widaman, K. F. (2010). Social perception in children with intellectual disabilities: The interpretation of benign and hostile intentions. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 54(2), 168-180. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2788.2009.01240.x
Moon, Y. (2010). How food ads communicate ‘health’ with children: a content analysis of Korean television commercials. Asian Journal of Communication, 20, 456 – 476. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/01292986.2010.496858
O’Bryan, K. G., & Boersma, F. J. (1971). Eye movements, perceptual activity, and conservation development. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 12(2), 157-169. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-0965(71)90001-4
Piaget, J. (1952). The child’s conception of number. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.
Piaget, J. (1959). The language and thought of the child: Selected works vol. 5. Routledge, London.