Research

Humans are inordinately cooperative beings, and our ultra-cooperative, moral nature is thought to account for our success as a species. The research in our lab focuses on the ontogenetic emergence of the moral emotions, cognitions, and behaviors that make children successful cooperators. This includes the emergence of social emotions such as sympathy and guilt, of moral evaluations, and of moral behaviors such as prosocial behavior and the enforcement of moral norms. Of particular interest are children’s understanding of and responses to third-party moral situations as these are the litmus test for impersonal morality, which may well be unique to humans.

We are also interested in infant social referencing, children’s understanding of others’ desires as an early form of theory of mind, and the development of the negativity bias.

Current Studies

Children’s Understanding of Environmental Actions

Adults vary widely in how they think about environmental actions, from recycling to driving a car to the treatment of animals. How do children understand such actions? Do they respond differently to actions that affect plants, animals, or other people? Our ongoing studies with children ages 4-10 years will soon be available for families to participate online.

For more information or questions concerning this research, please contact Dr. Jessica Stern (js4qb@virginia.edu).

 

Children’s Understanding of Rules

Young children are remarkably aware of and motivated to enforce social norms. But children respond to some rule violations more strongly than others. So how do they pick up which norms are more important than others? To answer this, graduate student Meltem Yucel is testing how both children’s and adults’ perceptions of rule violations.

For more information or questions concerning this research, please contact Meltem Yucel (nmy2bg@virginia.edu).

  

Exploring Children’s Understanding of Gratitude

The action of “paying it forward” has been a recent focus point in many news stories, but little is known about this behavior in children. We are studying the age children are more likely to engage in this phenomena. In this current study, three- and four-year-old children play a seemingly difficult game to find a key that unlocks a box full of stickers. Some children received a note from the previous player about where the key may be hidden.  Once the box is unlocked the child was given the opportunity to share their stickers. Although gratitude is a complex emotion, this study opens the door for us to investigate how young children may begin to experience and express gratitude.

For more information or questions concerning this study, please contact Stefen Beeler (sjb3px@virginia.edu).

 

Is Cooperation Intuitive for Children?

Human beings are unique in their incredible ability to cooperate with others. But is cooperation intuitive, coming easily to us from an early age, or is it something that develops over time and requires high levels of self-control? This line of work explores how intuitive decision-making processes relate to young children’s cooperative behavior and tests how this relation may change across development.

For more information or questions concerning this study, please contact Johanna Chajes (jrc4hw@virginia.edu).

 

Children’s Understanding of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is one key to repairing damaged relationships. Research with adults has shown that the act of forgiving and being forgiven is extremely important for sustaining relationships and for our well-being. Yet, we know very little about the ontogenetic emergence of forgiveness. Over a series of studies, we are interested in understanding whether children are more likely to forgive transgressors who show remorse over those that do not, whether children are more likely to forgive their cooperation partners, and whether children value forgiveness as a trait in other people.

For more information or questions concerning this research, please contact Prof. Amrisha Vaish (vaish@virginia.edu).