Explaining the U-shaped development of intent-based moral judgments

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When preschoolers evaluate actions and agents, they typically neglect agents' intentions and focus on action outcomes instead. By contrast, intentions count much more than outcomes for older children and adults. This phenomenon has traditionally been seen as evidence of a developmental change in children's concept of what is morally good and bad. However, a growing number of studies shows that infants are able to reason about agents' intentions and take them into account in their spontaneous socio-moral evaluations. Here we argue that this puzzling U-shaped trajectory in children's judgments is best accounted for by a model that posits developmental continuity in moral competence and emphasizes the effect of immature executive function skills on preschoolers' performance. Mental state reasoning is required in several tasks, from inferential communication and the interpretation of social situations to the socio-moral evaluation of actions and agents. Children at an early age start to accuse peers by crying loudly " you did it on purpose!, " and legal systems typically distinguish harmful acts that are performed intentionally from acts that accidentally produce personal harm. A large body of developmental research investigated when and how children acquire the ability to attend to agents' intentions and action outcomes in their socio-moral judgments, but the conclusions one can draw from infant studies seem at odds with the conclusions one can draw from studies on older children. Infants seem to possess abilities that young preschoolers' responses do not reveal. In the present work, we address this puzzle by first reviewing relevant results on socio-moral reasoning in infants and children. Then, we evaluate different proposals put forward to explain the reported developmental changes and the apparent contradiction between infants and preschool children's responses.




Margoni, F., & Surian, L. (2016). Explaining the U-shaped development of intent-based moral judgments. Frontiers in Psychology. Frontiers Media S.A. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00219

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