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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Five-Year-Old Children Integrate Jointly Across Probabilistic and Social Domains When Inferring Preferences in Others


Human learners regularly face the challenging task of inferring unobservable psychological states in others. Sensitivity to relevant cues when inferring a psychological state –such as another’s preference—is an invaluable skill: accurate inference of underlying states allows one to understand and predict another's behavior. Research has shown that 18-month-old children can use affective cues when asked to infer an agent’s preference (Repacholi & Gopnik, 1997). Recent studies have also demonstrated that children from 16 months to 4 years can also use probabilistic cues to infer another's preference (Kushnir, Xu & Wellman, 2010; Ma & Xu, 2011). However, single cues are limited in the kinds of inference they allow and the inferential certainty they provide. While there is reasonable evidence that children can use a variety of single cues to infer preference, less attention has been paid to children’s ability to integrate across multiple cues. The current study investigated whether children could rationally integrate both probabilistic and social cues to predict an agent's preference. 64 three- to five-year-old children were presented with probabilistic and social cues through a puppet agent who picked toys out of a jar. After watching the agent sample objects out of a jar and express either joy or disgust, the child was asked to offer the agent one toy he liked to play with. We found that children's toy choices were sensitive to both types of cues, suggesting that by five years of age children can integrate across multiple cues to support their social reasoning.

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