Children's Understanding and Use of Prosocial Intentions

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Beeler-Duden, Stefen, Psychology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Beeler-Duden, Stefen, AS-Psychology (PSYC), University of Virginia

Humans are social beings that rely heavily on our cooperative relationships (Tomasello et al., 2012). This predisposition to engage in cooperation and establish relationships likely accounts for our success as a species (Tomasello, 2009). In order to form these relationships, however, we must identify individuals who promise to be reliable, beneficial partners. Intentions help individuals navigate this difficult challenge, as they allow individuals to distinguish between self-interested versus truly generous partners and generate accurate predictions about their potential partners and future cooperation (Cushman, 2008; Falk & Fischbacher, 2006; Gul & Pesendorfer, 2016; Lopes, 1994). In three studies with 4- to 9-year-old children, this dissertation aimed to explore when humans develop the ability to understand and make use of others’ prosocial intentions and how altruistic and egoistic prosocial intentions shape children’s predictions of others’ behavior, evaluations of the prosocial individuals, and guide their own cooperative behavior.
In the first study (Chapter 2), we aimed to investigate children’s lay theories of others’ prosocial intentions. The results indicate that 4- to 9-year-old children in the sample we tested primarily believe that people act out of other-oriented altruistic motives rather than egoistic and self-serving motives. This study also found that parental values and socialization were associated with children’s prosocial intention assumptions: Parents who valued caring for others and community loyalty were more likely to have children who thought the prosocial behavior was motivated by care-based motivations. This study is one of the first to show how children interpret someone’s ambiguous prosocial motives and provide context for how these preconceptions can shape children’s perceptions and responses to their social world.
The second study (Chapter 3) expanded upon this work and examined experimentally how 4- to 8-year-old children react to others’ prosocial intentions and use them to navigate their social world. The study found that children as young as six years old incorporate intentions into their evaluations of someone's prosocial behavior (i.e., goodness or badness) and whom they would solicit help from. Eight and nine-year-olds were the only age group in this study to think that the recipient of prosocial behavior should reward someone who acts out of altruistic care-based motives and that the Altruistic prosocial individual will be more prosocial in the future. Additionally, 8-and 9- year-olds predicted that the recipient of the prosocial action would feel mixed emotions (i.e., “both happy and unhappy”) after someone is prosocial out of the egoistic desire for reciprocity. Interestingly, even children as young as four used intentions to make predictions about the relationship between the prosocial individuals and the recipients of their prosocial behavior, such that children at all ages thought the recipient would have a closer relationship and desire to affiliate more with someone whose prosocial behavior was motivated by concern for another's welfare.
The aim of the third study (Chapter 4) was to examine how children use altruistic and egoistic intentions to inform their own cooperative behaviors and predictions of their prosocial partners’ behavior. Using a repeated Trust Game, the study found that 6- and 7- year-olds as well as 8- and 9-year-olds shared more resources with the Altruistic prosocial partner when their allotment was contingent on the prosocial partner’s sharing, and this may be an effort to invest in the relationship and reward the intentions behind their Altruistic prosocial partner’s actions (McCabe et al., 2003). Children in these age groups also indicated that they felt more mixed emotional states upon receiving resources from a prosocial partner motivated by a desire for reciprocity. Unlike the moral evaluations in Chapter 3, 8- and 9-year-olds were the only age group to evaluate the Egoistic prosocial partner as less good than the Altruistic prosocial partner but all children, regardless of age, thought that the Altruistic prosocial partner was “nicer” than the Egoistic prosocial partner in the forced-choice questions.
Taken together, these studies indicate that children from quite early in development can distinguish between prosocial individuals who act with egoistic self- serving versus altruistic other-oriented motives. As children age, their use of these intentions becomes more sophisticated. It begins to inform what is considered morally good, predictions of others’ behavior, and whom they desire to affiliate with. This crucial skill allows individuals to choose reliable and trustworthy future partners, actively expanding their cooperative networks and allowing individuals to establish new positive, cooperative relationships. Thus, allowing humans to extend cooperation beyond kin and previously established cooperative partners, thereby contributing to the emergence and success of our large-scale cooperative societies.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Cooperation, Intentions, Relationships, Relationship Formation, Altruism
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