Museum of Science, Boston

Children's Social Reasoning

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.

Current Research

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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.

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When do children expect others to feel guilty?

Young children know that certain actions like hitting and pushing are wrong, but sometimes these behaviors allow them to get what they want (e.g., hitting someone in order to get a toy). This study explores whether children think that aggression will lead to happy or guilty feelings in different situations.

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Do children need to use their willpower to imagine someone else's point of view?

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is a hard thing to do, and both children and adults often assume that other people see things the way they do. But we don’t know what mental tools children need to imagine what someone else is thinking or feeling. In this study, we want to know whether children need to use the same type of willpower that they use to follow rules or pay attention in order to put aside their own point of view and imagine someone else’s.

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Do children choose to share, rather than take from others?

Young children know that they should share equally, but their initial impulse is often to get as much of something as possible, keeping more for themselves. In this study, we want to find out if children will act more fairly if they must take something away from another person in order to get more for themselves.

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What do children think about mental states?

When we think about other people, we often think about what is going on in their minds. We might think about their beliefs, their goals, their desires, and their emotions. Scientists sometimes call these “mental states.” Our research explores whether kids think there are different categories of mental states. For example, do they think that feeling an emotion is different than having a belief? Do children use their knowledge of others’ mental states to predict how people will act in different situations?

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How do children perceive mixed-race faces?

Research has shown that adults often find it easier to remember faces that belong to only one racial group than those that are mixed-race or whose race is ambiguous. In our research, we want to find out whether children demonstrate the same pattern. Because children often learn through categorization, and mixed-race individuals do not belong to just one category, children may have more difficulty remembering faces that are mixed-race, and they may not understand what it would be like to be a mixed-race person.

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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.

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When do children think that others should be punished?

Children know that they may be punished for certain behaviors, but how well do they understand the concept of punishment? Do they think that people are only punished when they break specific rules, or whenever they do anything immoral? In this study, we're interested in how children predict when other people will get punished.

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How do children help others?

From an early age, children understand that helping others is important, but do they also understand how they should help others? Helping in the right way can be tricky when what is good for someone conflicts with what s/he would prefer. Our lab explores when children begin to realize that we sometimes have to decide whether to give others what they actually need, rather than what they have asked for.

Completed Research

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How do apologies affect children’s feelings and behavior?

Most parents prompt young children to apologize after making another person feel upset, but do the words “I’m sorry” have an impact?

This study examined whether children feel and behave differently in the presence -versus absence- of an apology