Preferences, Choices, and Thinking about Thinking

Laura E. Garvin, Ph.D.

Being able to infer what other people might be thinking is an essential skill for successfully navigating social interactions, allowing us to explain and predict others’ behavior and helping guide our interactions with social partners. The basic beliefs people have about how others’ minds work is called “theory of mind,” and developing theory of mind skills is an important component of children’s social cognitive development.

With the help of the SSD Summer Grant, I spent my summer writing up my dissertation discussing my research investigating how young children learn to use a person’s actions and behavior to reason about what that person might be thinking, and how children can use this information to anticipate their social partners’ future thoughts and behavior. My dissertation work looked at these questions specifically in the context of children’s understanding of others’ preferences – what people like and dislike.

One series of studies in my dissertation explored children’s developing understanding of the relationship between preferences and choices. For adults, an easy and common way to tell what a person likes is to look at the choices they have made. When adults see a person repeatedly choose one item over another item, then are later asked which item they think the person likes, adults overwhelming say that the person likes the item she had chosen. Surprisingly, my work shows that preschool children do not readily make this inference. We showed 3-year-old children a box containing two kinds of toys – ducks and frogs – with one kind of toy being much more plentiful in the box than the other. Children observed a character (“Sally”) choose several of the uncommon toys from the box, a selection that would be highly unlikely if she were choosing between the two toys at random. Later, children were asked to predict which of the two kinds of toys – ducks or frogs – they thought Sally liked.

The results showed that although 3-year-olds could easily remember which toys Sally had chosen from the box, they did not think she necessarily liked that kind of toy better than the other kind of toys, suggesting that 3-year-olds may not view choices as reliable evidence of what a person likes. However, with the addition of a relatively small amount of verbal scaffolding from an experimenter – when children were told at the beginning of the experiment, “Some toys Sally really likes and other toys she doesn’t like. Can you help me figure out what she likes?” – 3-year-olds could successfully use Sally’s choices to predict what she likes, highlighting that having a specific context through which to interpret a person’s behavior can bolster young children’s ability to use that behavior to infer the person’s mental states. When we tested 4- to 11-year-olds, we found that children became increasingly likely with age to use Sally’s choices as evidence of her preferences, even without any verbal support from the experimenter, and reached adult-like levels by approximately age 9-10.

Another series of studies in my dissertation explored young children’s ability to transfer information about a person’s preferences across different situations. If a person likes something in one situation, do young children predict that the person will continue to like it even in a new situation? In one room, 2-year-old children were shown and told that a character liked one toy and did not like another. Although 2-year-old children could reason about the character’s preferences for the toys reasonably well while remaining in that room, when children were shown the exact same character and toys in a different room after a two minute delay, 2-year-olds were unsure which toy the character liked. Two-year-olds were, however, able to transfer information about a new word across the same kind of time and situation change, suggesting that 2-year-old children may have a specific difficulty reasoning about others’ preferences across situations. By age 3, children predicted that a person’s preferences would remain consistent not only across rooms, but also from one day to another and across a change in environment.

Together, these findings demonstrate that the preschool years are an important time in the development of children’s ability to reason about others’ minds. In the context of choices and preferences, my dissertation research shows that through the preschool years, children become better able to use a person’s choices to make inferences about their preferences and better able to generalize these inferences across different situations. These findings provide novel insight into young children’s understanding of how minds work.

Receiving the SSD Summer Grant allowed me to complete writing up these findings as a dissertation, which I successfully defended by the end of the summer to receive my Ph.D. at the August convocation. I am grateful for the opportunity to spend my summer capping off my five years of research at UChicago.

Laura Garvin received her doctorate in Psychology in August 2015.