How do children learn about intentions and accidents?

    • Topic: Social Interactions

    • Location: Discovery Center

    We are interested in how young children (ages 3-4) learn to evaluate the actions of others. Prior research has shown that by pre-school, children often know that someone who does something bad (e.g., breaks a toy) by accident is less blameworthy than someone who does something bad on purpose. We are interested in how young children distinguish between accidental transgressions and intentional transgressions, how this ability develops, and what types of early experiences promote understanding the actions of others.

    Children will first play with a small toy and learn that it might be easy to break. They will either learn this information directly (by handling the toy themselves and watching it break), indirectly (by watching the experimenter handle the toy, or simply hearing the experimenter talk about the toy), or not see the toy break at all. They will then watch a short video of an unfamiliar person breaking the toy. We are interested in how children’s experiences with the toy influence the way they think about the situation in the video.

    We predict that young children might put blame on someone who broke a toy, even if it was by accident. However, we also predict that children who had direct experience with handling the toy themselves and watching it break would be less likely to blame someone else who broke it, and more likely to recognize that breaking the toy was an accident.

    This research is conducted at the Museum of Science, Boston by Peter Blake and the Social Development and Learning Lab at Boston University.

        » Boston University Social Development and Learning Lab

    Activities to Try in the Discovery Center

    Falling Down

    Make a domino run, or similar structure, with your child on the second floor of the Discovery Center. Children smile with delight as they watch the dominoes fall down and make a crashing noise.

    What happens if one child accidentally knocks over the dominoes of another child before s/he is ready to make them go? If you knock over a structure your child has built, does s/he seem to notice whether you did this on purpose on by accident? If s/he then accidentally knocks over a structure you have built, does this help your child understand that such an action is not intentional?

    Activities to Try at Home


    Play a game of water balloon toss with your child, and challenge them to see how many times you can pass the water balloon back and forth without it dropping and breaking (for an additional challenge, step further apart each time you successfully pass it!)

    If you drop the balloon, or throw it too far, does your child recognize whether the mistake was intentional or accidental? What happens if your child drops a balloon? Is s/he more willing to accept that you could drop the balloon unintentionally if s/he has previously as well?

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