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.


Do children choose to share, rather than take from others?

Young children know that they should share equally, but their initial impulse is often to get as much of something as possible, keeping more for themselves. In this study, we want to find out if children will act more fairly if they must take something away from another person in order to get more for themselves.

We ask children to pack an envelope with stickers so that we can mail it to another child. Then we give them a chance to take some of the other child's stickers before the envelope is mailed. We also ask them about why they decided to take some stickers (or not take them), and how they feel about it. Finally, to find out if there are any links between children’s tendency to share and their overall level of impulsiveness, we have children play a computer game that requires self-control. When children see an image of a sun on the screen, we ask them to say “Night”, and when they see a moon, we ask them to say “Day”. Since this is the opposite of what the picture shows, children must resist their initial impulse.

From previous research, we know that when young children are given the option to share with others, they often keep more stickers for themselves. In this study, we predict that children will be less willing to get a lot of stickers for themselves if they must take them away from another child. We also predict that younger children might be more impulsive, making it harder for them to share with others when faced with something they really want (like stickers!).

This research will help us understand the discrepancy between what kids know they should do, and what they actually decide to do in real situations.

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

Taking and giving honey

Ask a Discovery Center volunteer for help making and storing some “honey” in the Discovery Center’s Beehive! How does a whole hive of bees share their honey with one another?

Gather up all the honey with your child, and ask him or her to share some honey with one of the bee puppets. How much do they decide to give? What if another bee has all of the honey, and lets you take some? Ask your child how much they would take for themselves.

Try it at Home

Help yourself

Give your child an even number of crackers or cookies and ask how much s/he would like to share with you. How does s/he decide to split them up? How many does your child decide to take if you have the crackers instead?