Museum of Science, Boston

Reasoning about Social Situations

Learning to navigate social situations is an important part of growing up. Some cognitive scientists study children in order to develop a better sense of how children perceive other people and how this might affect their social interactions.


How do children decide who to play with?

Both children and adults face choices about when to cooperate and with whom to cooperate. As adults, we sometimes base these decisions on information we hear from others. Do children rely on the advice and experiences of others when deciding on a playmate? How do they decide whose advice to follow? We are exploring whether children listen to others’ opinions when deciding whether to share with another person and when deciding between cooperation partners.

In this study, children ages 3-10 are asked to decide who they would want to play games with by choosing between two possible partners presented on a computer screen. Before making a choice, children are introduced to other characters who provide conflicting information about the partners on the screen. For example, a character named Alex might tell the child that when he played with Annie, she was selfish. Then Joseph might tell the child that he heard that Annie was kind. We are interested in whether children take these kinds of statements into account, and how children decide which pieces of information are most reliable and most important for picking partners. Do children pay attention to whether information was obtained first-hand or through gossip? Do they take into account the relationship between the character and the person providing the information?

With this study, we hope to gain deeper insight into the way children use information about others’ reputations to make social decisions.

Learn about other research related to Reasoning about Social Situations.

This research is conducted by the Laboratory for Developmental Studies at Harvard University

Try it at the Museum

Surprising Facts

Sometimes when we learn about the world, we hear conflicting or surprising information. How do we know what to believe?

Check out the Discovery Boxes in the Discovery Center and explore a topic that interests you! Discovery Center volunteers can help you learn about the objects in each box. Find a fact in one of the activity books that surprises you or that goes against what you expected to be true. Ask your child what they think. How did they decide what to believe?

Try it at Home

Scientific explanations

Sometimes facts about the world are pretty surprising. That is why scientists use experiments and observations to provide evidence for what they think. Even scientists don’t always agree on things. Part of the scientific process is designing experiments that help us figure out which answer is right.

Ask your child a question about the world. For example, why is the sky blue? Brainstorm some different explanations and imagine what scientists might do to figure out the answer.