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.
Children claim toys as soon as they can talk. Learning to share, and understanding when property can be given away, takes children a long time. This study examines how children (ages 2.5 to 5 years) learn the rules of ownership.
In this study, children heard two stories in which one character got a toy from another. In each story, one child is described as the owner of a toy. In one version of the story, one child wraps up one of their toys and gives it to another child at a birthday party. In another version of the story, the child brings the toy to the park, and a second child steals it. After each story, we asked children questions to see which character they thought “owned” the toy at the end of the story (for example, “Can the thief take the toy home?” or “Does the birthday girl need to give the toy back?”).
Characters in different versions of the stories also expressed emotions - the thief sometimes said “This is great!” or the victim might say “Oh no!” We wanted to know whether these variations might change how children interpreted the events in the stories.
We found that children of all ages usually thought that the thief should not be able to keep the toy. However, 2-3 year-olds often believed that the birthday-girl or birthday-boy should also give their present back at the end of the story. These younger children tended to think that the first person who had the toy should get to keep it, regardless of the circumstances. However, 4-5 year-olds often said that the birthday-girl or –boy could keep the toy but that the thief could not. The 4 year-olds were also more likely to say that an adult, but not a child, could keep a stolen object.
This study showed that children’s understanding of ownership and property continues to mature, even up to five years of age. Young children often believe that whoever has an object first should be able to keep it, which may make sharing with others challenging for them. Although this is an important social skill for older children and adults, young children may have very different opinions about sharing, taking, and giving.
Our research has helped us understand how and when children learn the rules of ownership and how they apply these rules to everyday situations.
View a video of Dr. Peter Blake discussing related research.
Read about research that examines: Are children generous or selfish?.
Learn about other research related to Reasoning about Social Situations.
This research is conducted by the Paul Harris Lab at Harvard University