Toddlers Understand the Cost of Actions

Young children understand who should be helpful

Posted May 22, 2015

Eugene de Blaas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Eugene de Blaas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When a friend refuses to help you with something, that may or may not upset you.  It depends on their ability to help as well as the cost of that help.  You might be upset if that friend wouldn’t help you move a chair across the room, but not if she had a sprained ankle.  You might be upset if a friend won’t come over to help you with a project if that friend plans to spend the day lying on a hammock, but not if that friend would have to take a day off from work to help you.

So, as an adult, you are able to recognize that help you need comes at a cost.  The higher the cost for the helper, the less upset you are when the person does not help you.

What about younger kids?  Do they take the costs of people’s actions into account?  This question was explored ina paper in the May, 2015 issue of Psychological Science by Julian Jara-Ettinger, Joshua Tenenbaum, and Laura Schulz. 

They developed an interesting task for two-year-olds.  In the first study, they had the toddlers watch as a pair of puppets tried to operate a toy by pressing a button.  One puppet was really bad at the task, and took several tries before getting it to operate.  The other puppet was able to operate the toy on the first try.  (The order in which the puppets tried the toy as varied during the study.) 

In the first, study, children were just asked which puppet they would rather play with for a while.  The children overwhelmingly chose to play with the puppet who was better able to make the toy worked.  This finding suggests that the children recognized that one puppet was more competent at working the toy than the other.  Toddlers in another study were asked which puppet was nicer, and they also responded that the more competent puppet was nicer than the incompetent puppet.

In another study, the toddlers again witnessed the two puppets try to work the toy.  After that, the toddler’s parent picked up the toy and asked each puppet for help making it work.  Each puppet refused to help.  The toddlers were then asked which puppet was nicer.  In this case, the majority of toddlers said that the incompetent puppet was nicer. 

The idea is that it would be easy for the competent puppet to help, so when the competent puppet refuses to help, that puppet must be mean.  It would be hard for the incompetent puppet to help, and so when that puppet refuses to help, it is not because that puppet is mean, but because it would be too hard for it to help.  So, the incompetent puppet is now seen as nicer. 

Finally, when the puppets refuse to help, you might wonder which puppet the toddlers would want to play with.   They might want to play with the more competent puppet, because (even though that puppet isn’t so nice) is probably better at playing than the incompetent puppet.  On the other hand, they might want to play with the incompetent puppet, because they might prefer to play with the puppet they think is nicest.

In this study, the majority of toddlers chose to play with the unhelpful puppet who was more competent.  That is, even though they recognized that this puppet was not nice, they still wanted to play with it, because it is good at using the toy.

This pattern of data is interesting.  It suggests that toddlers can use knowledge about someone else’s abilities to determine whether they should have been helpful.  Nonetheless, while they use information about being helpful to judge whether a puppet was nice, that did not influence their desire to play with the puppets later.

These results don’t seem that different from what adults do.  Adults will often choose to spend their time with people they deem to be smart, powerful, or effective, even if they don’t think those people are nice.

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