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.


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.

In this study, we tell children (ages 3-8 years) stories about some school children. In some of the stories, a child breaks a school rule (e.g., the child puts his bag in the wrong part of the classroom), and in other stories, a child does something immoral or “bad” (e.g., throwing water on another child). In some cases, the child’s action might be both immoral and against the rules (e.g., stealing), or neither. After each story, we ask children whether they think the child in the story will be punished.

We predict that children under 5 years old will think that the children in the stories will be punished if they do something that is immoral, even if they didn't actually break a school rule. However, we predict that older children (over age 5) will think that the children in the stories will only be punished for breaking a school rule, and not for doing other things that are immoral. This would suggest that children's understanding of the relationship between rules and punishment changes as they get older.

This research will help us to understand how children think about rules and laws, and may allow us to teach young children about things like school rules more easily.

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

Public spaces

How are the rules different when you’re in a public place, compared to your own home? Do you act differently toward strangers than your family and friends? What kinds of things would you do at home, but not at the museum?

Stealing Honey

Try “bee-ing” a honeybee in the Discovery Center’s Beehive! If one bee stole all of the honey, do you think it should be punished?

Try it at Home


What are the rules in your house? What kinds of things are against the rules, and how do you decide? How are the rules in your house different from the rules at your school, or from the law in your state?

Being "Bad"

Can you think of some actions that aren’t against any specific rules, but are still “bad” things to do? Should you be punished if you do these things?