The University of Sussex

Children's use of trait terms: a critical review and analysis

Nicola Yuill

Research on children's understanding of traits has been embedded in an incomplete view of children's social cognitive abilities, and in a relatively implicit understanding of what trait terms are. This paper draws on the philosophical literature on dispositions, and on recent work in social cognition, to pose new questions about the development of trait terms. Following a brief critical review of previous studies, two conceptions of trait are presented - behavioural regularities and causal mechanisms - and ways of distinguishing them are suggested. A review of attempts to provide classifications of traits shows that basic mental concepts of beliefs, desires and emotions underlie the use of traits as causal mechanisms. Recent work on children's understanding of these mental terms is used to suggest future research directions.

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