Children's use of interpretations of evidence in judgments of behavior and beliefs
Boerger, Elizabeth Anne
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The ability to evaluate others’ behavior in terms of the intentions that guide it is a key development in children’s understanding of personal responsibility (Piaget, 1932/1965). According to Piaget, young children attribute responsibility on the basis of the objective effects of behavior because they are not able to understand the reasons for rules that define permitted and prohibited behaviors. In contrast, older children and adults attribute responsibility on the basis of the actor’s subjective intentions. This ability reflects children’s developing understanding that rules represent the rule-maker’s anticipation of potential effects of the behavior for the individual and the social group. Thus, the developmental shift from objective to subjective concepts of responsibility, as seen in children’s evaluations of behavior, marks underlying development in children’s understanding of the ontology and purpose of rules, as well as in children’s ability to use rules to guide their own behavior. Several types of intention information may be used to attribute responsibility. These can include whether a specific outcome was intended, the actors’ motives for acting, and their knowledge about potential outcomes of their actions. Research on children’s evaluations of behavior has been guided by two theories, Piaget’s (1932/1965) and Heider’s (1958), that emphasize different aspects of intentionality as central to mature concepts of subjective responsibility. On the basis of a review of research guided by each of these theories, this paper argues that understanding of foreseeability as basis for attributing responsibility for beliefs is central to a subjective concept of responsibility. Two experiments exploring development in children’s understanding of responsibility for foreseeable outcomes are described. In Experiment 1, 5-year-olds, 6- and 7-year-olds and adults used foreseeability to attribute responsibility for unintended outcomes. In Experiment 2, although 6- to 12-year-olds and adults all used foreseeability to attribute responsibility for unintended outcomes, only 12-year-olds and adults consistently used foreseeability to attribute responsibility for false beliefs. Using foreseeability to attribute responsibility for beliefs was related, independently of age, to greater use of foreseeability in attributing responsibility for outcomes. Results are discussed in terms of developments in understanding of relations among evidence, beliefs and responsibility for behavior.