When Preferences Are in the Way: Children’s Predictions of Goal-Directed Behaviors

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Across three studies, we examined 4- to 7-year-olds’ predictions of goal-directed behaviors when goals conflict with preferences. In Study 1, when presented with stories in which a character had to act against basic preferences to achieve an interpersonal goal (e.g., playing with a partner), 6- and 7-year-olds were more likely than 4- and 5-year-olds to predict the actor would act in accordance with the goal to play with the partner, instead of fulfilling the basic preference of playing a favored activity. Similar results were obtained in Study 2 with scenarios that each involved a single individual pursuing intrapersonal goals that conflicted with his or her basic preferences. In Study 3, younger children’s predictions of goal-directed behaviors did not increase for novel goals and preferences, when the influences of their own preferences, future thinking, or a lack of impulse control were minimized. The results suggest that between ages 4 and 7, children increasingly integrate and give more weight to other sources of motivational information (e.g., goals) in addition to preferences when predicting people’s behaviors. This increasing awareness may have implications for children’s self-regulatory and goal pursuit behaviors.

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