Developing Minds

Exploring the social side of humanity

Toddler Knows Best

New research indicates that 3-year-old children help "paternalistically"—indicating that they know better than others what's best for them. Much like Bloomberg and his soda ban or state laws requiring seat belts, children understand that sometimes you have to ignore what people say they want now in order to help them accomplish their larger goals instead. Read More

Paternalistic slippery slope

"Even though we’re not acting in line with what others say they want, we are typically trying to help the person by denying them what they ask for or enforcing things they explicitly do not want."

Dr. Olson - your above line troubles me. What gives anyone the justification to deny anyone what they freely want to have, regardless of the personal outcome? Who are these magical beings who are acting for the "greater good" when they deny someone what they, as free people, should be able to have?

I see this "help" as a slippery slope, and your research may be used as the justification for it. Just as Mayor Bloomberg has decided to take it upon himself to deny people soda and styrofoam for "their own good," where will it end? You can take your research conclusions on "paternalistic help" and extrapolate it out to cover any number of things that the magical beings, acting for our "best interests," decide are bad or dangerous for us. See the gun debate, eating meat, the environmentalist movement, etc.

People's freedom to decide what is best for themselves, regardless of the danger or risk is the foundation of a free society. The individual's freedom outweighs the risk to the "collective." Using a study (which shows 3-year olds know what is "best" for them and others) to validate what Bloomberg or other Progressives (Democrat and Republican) are doing is dangerous and wrong.

If this is truly a free country, why are we trying to validate the idea that people don't know what is best for them?


Thanks for your comment Mark! We appreciate the spirit of your comment and quite agree with the sentiment. However, as researchers our job is to describe what people do, rather than what they should do. Therefore in this piece we were trying to describe a behavior that we often see—people doing things because they think (or at least say) they are trying to do what is best for someone else. We were investigating whether children do this too. We leave it to policy specialists or philosophers to decide whether this is morally acceptable or not across the board. Our non-scientist sides can come up with lots of examples of good paternalistic helping (e.g., making a child take medicine he doesn’t want) as well as lots of examples of bad paternalistic helping (e.g., check this out:

You raise concerns that our work could be used as justification for paternalistic behavior. We disagree that it could be used, at least effectively, to make that point as children do all sorts of things that we don’t think they should so we wouldn’t guess that showing a study that children bite others means that this is evidence that people should bite other people. We see the worry, but are fairly confident people won’t be fooled into thinking paternalism is good (or bad for that matter) based on its existence in young kids.

Already happening

Dr. Olson - I hear your point, but it has already started. Please see the link below.

No answer

Dr. Olson - did you see the link I sent you? Didn't see an answer.



Yes, I saw your link and I agree that it provides a discussion of issues of paternalism. As a scientist my job isn't to decide if paternalism is good or bad, rather to document when or why people do it. In the initial studies in our lab, we've shown that even young kids engage in paternalism. I'm happy to leave the debate about morality (is it good or bad to engage in such behavior?) to people for whom that's their expertise.

Academics influencing policy

Dr. Olson - thank you for your reply. I understand, and respect, your position that as a scientist your job is to study and hypothesize about paternalism. Studies like that should be done and I emphatically support the social sciences and all they do. Your work is fascinating and is vitally important to understanding human motivators and how we interact with others.

I would like your opinion, though, on the idea of others in the academic world using paternalism as a justification for policy. Cass Sunstein and Dr. Sarah Conly are academics and seem to have no problem bending the line, or even blatantly crossing over the line, between academia and policy making. Not only with Dr. Conly's book, but also with Sunstein's book "Nudge" and his work in the Obama administration. No one can truthfully deny the fact that paternalistic ideas have affected some aspects of policy making from some in all levels of authority. Bloomberg being a great example.

Sunstein is deeply rooted in policy making with the current administration, being what some call the "regulatory czar." His book "Nudge" has been around for years and his influence is apparent in some circles. Also, not only is Dr. Conly's book "Against Autonomy" provocative, but her future book "One" is deeply disturbing, attempting to influence people to limit family sizes.

How do you reconcile your response about leaving the debate about the morality of paternalistic policy to experts when some in your field are affecting that policy with their research or study? How do books like this from academics not influence policy?

I am truly interested in your opinion on the matter and would love to hear any response. Thank you in advance!


policy researchers are interested in policy

Hi Mark,

Many academics are specifically interested in policy. These researchers study various policies and often test the effects of different policies on a particular behavior. They are often hired in more applied or interdisciplinary programs like policy schools, law schools, or business schools. Others (like me in most of the domains I work) focus on more basic science questions. It great for me to know that while I can study basic questions, other people can focus their expertise on turning basic science into applications. In biology you see this a lot with some researchers focused, for example on how cells work, while others focus on how you can use this information to cure cancer or reduce obesity. As basic science researchers, some people use our work in ways that we admire (e.g., using basic cell biology to cure disease) while others use our discoveries in ways we disagree with (e.g., in the ways that some companies use information about food science to get people addicted to junk food). Some folks start out as basic science researchers and then switch to more translational research, others do both in tandem, and still others focus on just one for their whole career. In the domain of prosocial behavior, I'm really interested in understanding questions about when, why and how young children engage in prosocial actions. That's my goal, at least for now!

Kristina Olson

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • You may quote other posts using [quote] tags.

More information about formatting options

Kristina R. Olson, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University.


Subscribe to Developing Minds

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?