The danger of ‘because I said so’ - new research shows that preschoolers need real reasons
The Sector > Research > The danger of ‘because I said so’ – new research shows that preschoolers need real reasons

The danger of ‘because I said so’ – new research shows that preschoolers need real reasons

by Freya Lucas

January 18, 2023

Young children pay attention to when the caring adults in their lives make promises they don’t keep, a new study has shown, and are able to spot ‘cop out’ excuses a mile away. 


By the time children reach preschool age (between three and five years) they have developed an understanding of the reasons why people renege on their promises, and a system for working out which reasons are justifiable and which are not. 


Published in the journal Cognitive Development the Duke University research was led by PhD candidate Leon Li, working with developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello. The pair worked with 64 preschoolers who were shown a series of videos in which puppets promised to show them a cool toy, left the scene to go get it, but then came back empty-handed.


Afterwards, the puppets either gave a good excuse for going back on their word (“I had to help my friend with his homework”), a bad excuse (“I wanted to watch TV”), or no explanation at all. The children were then asked whether they thought the puppets’ actions were wrong or not, and why.


No matter what the excuse (or lack thereof), the children agreed that it was generally wrong to break a promise. However they were more understanding when the puppets offered a good excuse (i.e., they had to help someone), versus a poor one (i.e., they just wanted to do something fun instead).


In other words, children this age grasp that obligations to help others take priority over selfish desires, Mr Li said.


The children’s responses also revealed that a poor excuse was just as bad as none at all.


“Previous research has suggested that in some cases, young children will just take any reason to be better than no reason at all,” Mr Li said. “But here we showed that children do pay attention to the actual content.”


When asked to explain their answers, the children’s justifications changed with age. 


Older preschoolers were better at articulating their thinking in terms of what the puppets “should” do, or are “supposed” to do, suggesting that children’s’ understanding of obligations to others is more fully developed by this age.


Despite the poor excuses, those puppets who didn’t have a “good” reason for letting the child down were still considered likeable by the children, some of whom agreed that despite the poor excuses they would still invite that puppet to play with them. 


“Usually if someone breaks a promise and gives you a poor reason, it implies they’re not really a good friend,” Mr Li said. “Children this age don’t make that connection. They’re just not there yet.”


This study is part of a larger field of research on how children come to appreciate and act on cultural and moral norms for how we behave and treat each other.


“Morality is a type of common ground that we have with others, with mutual expectations about how we should behave and what counts as good grounds for justification,” Mr Li explained.


“We’re showing that young children become attuned to this common ground at an early age.”


Access Young Children Judge Defection Less Negatively When There’s a Good Justification using the link provided. 

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