How do children reason about other people’s behaviors?

    • Topic: Social Interactions

    • Location: Discovery Center

    Previous research has shown that children can identify what causes people to act in certain ways. For example, if John always jumps off a diving board and Mark never jumps off the diving board, children are good at guessing that John is more likely to jump on a trampoline than Mark. In this study, we are interested in how children identify these kinds of social causes. We are particularly interested in whether the way we describe a person’s actions changes children’s reasoning and predictions.

    In this study, children ages 2 to 6 years are shown that one puppet performs an action (e.g., rock climbing), while another puppet does not (e.g., avoids rock climbing). We then vary the way we describe the event to emphasize either the person (“John is scared”), or the event (“Rock climbing is scary”). We also vary how often each puppet approaches or avoids the event (“always” compared to “some of the time”). We then ask children to make predictions about what these puppets, as well as new puppets, will do in the future.

    We are interested in determining how the descriptions and frequencies of the actions influence what children believe causes a person to behave in a certain way. We are also interested in how these beliefs change during the preschool years.

    This research is conducted at the Museum of Science, Boston by Paul Muentener (, Assistant Professor and Director of the Cognitive Development Laboratory at Tufts University.


    Activities to Try in the Discovery Center

    Children’s Gallery

    In the Children’s Gallery, find a chipmunk puppet and invite your child to help the chipmunk explore its “habitat”. Create a story using other animal puppets you encounter along the way. Act like your animal is afraid of one of the predator animal puppets (e.g. the fox), and repeat for another predator (e.g., the bobcat), telling your child either that “the chipmunk is scared”, or “that animal is scary” each time. Find a third predator puppet and ask your child what they think your animal will do. Does your child think the chipmunk will be scared? Does s/he think another prey animal (e.g., the rabbit) would respond in the same way? Does your child reason the chipmunk is more likely to explore near a beaver lodge, or near a coyote den?

    Activities to Try at Home

    Fables and Fairy Tales

    Many fables and fairy tales contain “stereotypical” character types (e.g. prince/princess, wicked witch, hero/heroine etc.) Read or tell your child a favorite fairy tale or fable, and help your child think about the actions and personalities of the different characters. Ask your child what they think a character would do in a new situation or story. Does s/he think a brave character from one fairy tale would act brave if they were part of another fairy tale? Would a wicked character always be wicked? Does your child think different characters from the same fairy tale would act the same way or different ways when facing a new situation? How does s/he think a cowardly character and a brave character would react to a challenge?

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