Rousseau's Child: Preschoolers Expect Strangers to Favor Prosocial Actions

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Abstract.Modern thinking about human nature is notoriously divided between two contradictory notions: The Hobbesian tradition portrays men as driven by selfish desires, while the Rousseauian tradition recognizes altruistic proclivities as true motivations to cooperate. We tested preschoolers' predictions about the prosocial or antisocial manner in which people would behave toward each other. Four stories were presented to 3- and 4-year-old children. In each story, the protagonists could either cooperate, act in terms of their own interests, or adopt a behavior unrelated to the ongoing scenario. Children as young as 3 years of age expected the protagonists to behave prosocially – and even more so if the protagonists were female. The results suggest that, even at an early age, children are inclined to adopt a “Rousseau-like” stance rather than a “suspicious” or “pessimistic” Hobbesian stance.

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