The influence of desires on young children’s reasoning
- Author(s): Wente, Adrienne Orchid;
- Advisor(s): Gopnik, Alison;
- et al.
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
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.