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.

Multiracial faces

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.

In this study, we show children (ages 4-8) faces that are either single-race or mixed-race, and we ask them different types of questions about them. In one task, we ask children to try to remember a small set of faces. Then we show them a larger group of faces with some of the previously-seen faces mixed in. We want to know how many of the original set of faces they remember, and whether they tend to remember the single-race faces more often than the mixed-race faces. In other tasks, we show children pictures of individual mixed-race children, and ask them to tell us what they think about each child: What race is s/he? Would you want to play with him/her? When s/he grows up, what will s/he look like? We also read children a short story about a mixed-race child and his adventures in a lunchroom.

By asking these questions, we hope to find out how children begin to understand racial groups, and what perceptions they have about mixed-race individuals. This research will help us to learn more about the issues faced by mixed-race children in school and other social settings.

Learn about other research related to Reasoning about Social Situations.

This research is conducted by the Social Psychology Lab at Tufts University

Try it at the Museum

Exploring Categorization

Children of all ages can categorize and classify objects as they play with them. Check out the Legs & Wheels Kiosk in the Discovery Center to learn about research on infants’ and toddlers’ ability to classify. By categorizing objects (or people!) children show that they have learned what the items in a group have in common. When they encounter something unfamiliar, they might try to use their knowledge of different groups to guide their decisions.

Why is classification a valuable skill for a toddler? How do you think a toddler would classify people into different groups? How many different ways can you think of to categorize all the people you see? How are all people alike?

Try it at Home

In someone else's shoes

How would it feel to be someone else? Can you imagine what it would feel like to be a different race or gender? To be a different age? To live in a different country? Would it feel very different, or not different at all?

As children get older, they become better able to imagine things from someone else’s perspective. Explore this idea with your child by pretending to be someone else, or by picturing yourselves in different situations or settings. Use storybooks to find new characters and places to imagine.