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.


Do children behave differently when someone is watching?

Previous research has shown that adults act differently when others are watching them, compared to when they are alone. Even subtle cues that someone may be watching (like a picture of someone’s eyes on the wall) can cause adults to monitor their behavior more closely. In this study, we want to know if children are similarly self-conscious when they think someone might be watching them.

To find out, we ask children to toss a colored coin behind a private, screened off area, and to tell us whenever the coin lands on the blue side. Each time the child tells us that the coin landed on blue, he or she receives a sticker. For some children, we will place a picture of someone’s eyes on the wall within the screened off area. We want to know whether the suggestion that there is someone watching could change children’s responses in this situation.

We predict that children under age 7 might ignore the eyes, and will behave similarly whether they think someone is watching or not. Children over age 8 might be more self-conscious of their behavior when others are watching, and may change their responses when the picture of the eyes is nearby.

This study will help us understand how children view themselves in social settings. By studying how and when children come to understand the implications of their actions, we hope to gain insight into our ability to cooperate with others in daily life.

Learn about other research related to Reasoning about Social Situations.

This research is conducted by the Child Cognition Lab at Boston University

Try it at the Museum

Find the eyes!

Most animals can sense their environment with eyes or light-sensitive spots. Other animals use touch, smell, or taste to sense what’s around them. Take a look at all of the animals in the Marine Biology Boat in the Discovery Center. Can you tell where each animal’s eyes would be? Which animals have eyes, and which don’t? How else might these animals sense their environment? Think about what it might be like to live on the bottom of the ocean. Which of your senses would be most useful to you if you were a crab, or a sea star?

Try it at Home

Being watched

Security cameras give the suggestion that you are being watched, even if there is no one actually there. Do you change your behavior if there is a camera nearby? Do you think others change their behavior if they think they are being watched? Do you think a child would respond the same way? See if you can think of other instances when your behavior might change if others were present, and think about what your child might do in the same situation.