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The influence of desires on young children’s reasoning


Previously developmental psychologists have explored how young children reason about

desires, and how desires constrain children’s inferences. For example, early research on theory of

mind explored when young children come to understand that people have different desires, and

how young children reason about conflicting desires across individuals or over the course of time

(e.g. Wellman and Liu, 2004). Relatedly, studies have explored how desires influence children’s

inferences about actions, finding that young children generally believe that people act

consistently with their desires (e.g. Kushnir, Gopnik, Chernyak, Seiver, and Wellman, 2015).

Studies on wishful thinking and optimism, on the other hand, have found that desires may more

broadly constrain inferences across a variety of domains. In particular, studies have shown that

desires bias older children’s and adults’ predictions about stochastic events (e.g. Krizan and

Windschitl, 2009). In Chapter 1 I outline previous research exploring how young children reason

about desires.

In Chapters 2 through 4 I present a series of cross-cultural developmental studies

exploring how desires impact children’s inferences. In Chapter 2, I explore the development of

beliefs about agency in Chinese and U.S. 4- and 6-year-old children, and if children believe that

people can ‘choose to’ act inconsistently with a desire, or practice self-control. Findings suggest

both differences and similarities across groups of children.

In Chapter 3, I present a similar study contrasting Peruvian and U.S. 4- to 7-year-olds. I

also explore if developmental changes in beliefs about self-control are related to first person

experiences practicing self-control. When contrasting Peruvian and U.S. children, findings

suggest differences in beliefs about self-control, however children demonstrated comparable

self-control skills. In addition, cultural group mediated the relationship between children’s 1st

person experiences practicing self-control, and their corresponding beliefs about self-control.

In Chapter 4, I present a series of studies exploring the influence of desires on young

Peruvian and U.S. children’s (3-to 7-year-olds) predictions about stochastic events. Findings

suggest that desires strongly constrain young children’s inferences across cultures.

Finally, in Chapter 5 I discuss the implications of these findings, as well as present

several avenues for future research. These findings more broadly contribute to our scientific

understanding of how young children reason about desirable possibilities, and how culture

impacts conceptual development.

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