Not So Innocent: Toddlers’ Inferences About Costs and Culpability

TitleNot So Innocent: Toddlers’ Inferences About Costs and Culpability
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2015
AuthorsJara-Ettinger, J
Secondary AuthorsTenenbaum, JB, Schulz, L
JournalPsychological Science
Date Published05/2015
Keywordscognitive development, open data, open materials, social cognition, theory of mind

Adults’ social evaluations are influenced by their perception of other people’s competence and motivation: Helping when it is difficult to help is praiseworthy, and not helping when it is easy to help is reprehensible. Here, we look at whether children’s social evaluations are affected by the costs that agents incur. We found that toddlers can use the time and effort associated with goal-directed actions to distinguish agents, and that children prefer agents who incur fewer costs in completing a goal. When two agents refuse to help, children retain a preference for the more competent agent but infer that the less competent agent is nicer. These results suggest that children value agents who incur fewer costs, but understand that failure to engage in a low-cost action implies a lack of motivation. We propose that a naive utility calculus underlies inferences from the costs and rewards of goal-directed action and thereby supports social cognition.


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