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.

Mental states

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?

In this study, children ages 3-6 meet novel characters on a computer screen, and learn several facts about each character. These initial stories include some information about the character’s mental states (for example, “This one feels excited when it plays a new game” or “This one plans where it will go during the day”). Next we show children two characters, and we will ask them to answer various questions about the sorts of things each character might think or feel or do. For each question, children are asked to decide which of the two characters seems to fit the question best. For example, we might ask: “One of these guys likes to eat strawberries, which one?”

We are interested in whether children use information about the characters’ minds to make inferences or predictions about other things they might think or do. We also want to find out whether some types of mental states are more informative than others.

With this study, we hope to gain deeper insight into the way children think about the minds of others.

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

Animal Minds

We know that other people have thoughts and feelings, but what about creatures other than humans? Do dogs and cats have thoughts or feelings? What about a mosquito?

Find an animal in the Discovery Center and ask your child whether it has a mind. Does an owl think about math problems? Does it want food? Does it feel sad? Does it see colors? Think about some different types of thoughts people and animals might have. How does your child figure out what sorts of thoughts might go on in another creature’s mind?

Try it at Home

Explaining ourselves

Often we use concepts of mental states to make sense of things that other people do, or to explain our own actions. Next time your child does something out of the ordinary, ask them why they did it. Does your child explain by describing what’s going on in his or her mind? Does your child refer to beliefs? Desires? Feelings? Notice what sorts of mental states your child uses to explain what he or she did. Does s/he use different kinds of mental state explanations in different situations?