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.

Paternalistic Altruism

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.

In this study, we use puppets to act out several short stories for children ages 5-10 years. In each story, one character asks another for something, and the other character has to help out by giving one of two objects. For example, in one story, the first character is hungry and asks for some candy. The second character (the “helper”) has to decide what to give: the candy, or a vegetable? In another story, the first character asks for a broken tool, and the helper has to decide whether to give the broken tool, or one that actually works. Our helper doesn’t know what to do and asks the children for advice. We want to know if children choose to give others what is good for them, rather than what they asked for. We are also interested in learning whether children’s understanding of what is helpful changes with age.

This study will provide deeper insight into children’s ability to think about the relationship between “helping” and other people’s needs.

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

Hungry robins

Check out the Robins’ Nest in the Discovery Center’s Children’s Gallery. Pretend that one of the robins is very hungry and needs something to eat.

Ask your child: "What would you rather eat, an apple or an ant?" Then ask him or her which item a robin would rather eat. Does your child offer the robin an apple from the tree, or an insect?

Try having the "robin" ask for one particular item. Does your child’s offering change?

What do animals need?

Check out the live animal enclosures in the Discovery Center! What do you think would be “good for” each type of animal?

Compare the gecko, bullfrog, and insect enclosures. What does each animal need to eat to survive? Where does each animal live in the wild?

How do you think an animal’s environment might impact its preferences?

Try it at Home

Dinnertime tools

When eating dinner with your family, ask your child for help getting the utensils. Ask for a fork to eat soup, a knife to eat salad, or a spoon to eat spaghetti.

Does your child give you the utensil you asked for, even though it won’t work? Or, do they give you a utensil that would be more helpful?