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.

Willpower and Theory of Mind

Do children need to use their willpower to imagine someone else's point of view?

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is a hard thing to do, and both children and adults often assume that other people see things the way they do. But we don’t know what mental tools children need to imagine what someone else is thinking or feeling. In this study, we want to know whether children need to use the same type of willpower that they use to follow rules or pay attention in order to put aside their own point of view and imagine someone else’s.

At the start of the study, children (ages 4-6) will play a game that’s a bit like Simon Says – sometimes they’ll have to stop their initial urge to do something based on the rules of the game. From previous research, we know that games like this can “wear out” children’s willpower, leaving less left over for other activities once the game is finished. In our study, some children will play a hard version of the game that requires a lot of willpower, and others will play an easier version. Next, we’ll tell children a story about a character looking for a missing object. We’ll ask children to explain why the character looks in the wrong place for the object. In order to answer this question, children will have to imagine the character’s point of view.

We predict that children who played the harder version of the Simon Says game will have difficulty imagining the character’s point of view. Children who played the easier game might be able to understand the character’s perspective more easily. This would suggest that willpower is a necessary skill for taking someone else’s point of view!

This study will help us understand how different cognitive skills develop in young children, and how different skills can influence one another.

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

Scientific Willpower

Try an experiment at the Discovery Center’s Experiment Station! Some aspects of these activities require a lot of self-control for young children (for example, using pipettes carefully, planning a design and testing out various versions of it, or cutting a piece of paper carefully along a straight line). After doing one of these activities, try imagining the point of view of a bee or robin in the Children’s Gallery. Is it harder for your child to imagine what the animal might do if s/he just finished a challenging experiment?

Try it at Home


How many activities can you think of that require willpower or self-control? How many times a day do you need to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand what they’re doing or how they feel? Think about how often these two types of activities might happen one after another. Would you be less able to do one, after doing the other?