The University of Sussex

Children's understanding of traits as causal mechanisms based on desires

Nicola Yuill, Anna Pearson

Two experiments investigated the bases on which children predict behavior and emotion from trait information. In Experiment 1, with 4-7 year-olds and adults, children from 5 years made different emotion predictions about the same situation for actors with different traits, showing an understanding that traits can be causal mechanisms, rather than mere summaries of behavioral regularities. There were age differences in stragegies for behavior prediction: 4-year-olds used a situation-matching rule but older children saw traits as generalisable across situations. While 6-7 year-olds endorsed predictions of dissimilar behavir with the same valence as the given trait information, cues, they also recognised that inferences based on value were less certain than those based on semantic similarity. Experiment 2 showed that accurate emotion predictions by 3- to 7-year-olds were linked to understanding desire as a subjective mental property. Differences in understanding specific traits show that trait understanding is underpinned both by general conceptual change in desire understandig and by knowledge about specific traits.

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