We cannot survive without being self-interested, but to what extend can we transcend narrow self-interests? We investigated children’s normative expectations about transcending self-interests and group boundaries. We found children as young as age four expect people to contribute to the common good, and by middle childhood, children think it is morally right to transcend group boundaries to treat strangers equally.
Yang, F., Choi, Y. J., Misch, A., Yang, X., & Dunham, Y. (2018). In defense of the commons: Young children negatively evaluate and sanction free riders. Psychological science, 29, 1598-1611.
Human flourishing depends on individuals paying costs to contribute to the common good, but such arrangements
are vulnerable to free riding, in which individuals benefit from others’ contributions without paying costs themselves.
Systems of tracking and sanctioning free riders can stabilize cooperation, but the origin of such tendencies is not well
understood. Here, we provide evidence that children as young as 4 years old negatively evaluate and sanction free
riders. Across six studies, we showed that these tendencies are robust, large in magnitude, tuned to intentional rather
than unintentional noncontribution, and generally consistent across third- and first-party cases. Further, these effects
cannot be accounted for by factors that frequently co-occur with free riding, such as nonconforming behaviors or the
costs that free riding imposes on the group. Our findings demonstrate that from early in life, children both hold and
enforce a normative expectation that individuals are intrinsically obligated to contribute to the common good.
Yale News: Even 4-year-olds dislike freeloaders
Children as young as age 4 express dislike of and are willing to punish those who freeload off the work of other group members, a new study has found. But kids also make a clear distinction between those who freeload intentionally and those who have good reasons why they can’t contribute. from science
Yang, F*., Yang, X*., & Dunham, Y. (in preparation). Developing a normative sense of group-transcendent fairness.
Happiness and Morality:
What is happiness? Philosophers have long debated about whether happiness is about feeling good, or about being good. We found that children and adults think bad people are not happy (even if they have positive feelings), suggesting morality is perceived as essential for happiness.
Yang, F., Knobe, J., & Dunham, Y. (2020). Happiness is from the soul: The nature and origins of our happiness concept. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000790
What is happiness? Is happiness about feeling good or about being good? Across five studies, we explored the nature and origins of our happiness concept developmentally and cross-linguistically. We found that surprisingly, children as young as age 4 viewed morally bad people as less happy than morally good people, even if the characters all have positive subjective states (Study 1). Moral character did not affect attributions of physical traits (Study 2), and was more powerfully weighted than subjective states in attributions of happiness (Study 3). Moreover, moral character but not intelligence influenced children and adults’ happiness attributions (Study 4). Finally, Chinese people responded similarly when attributing happiness with two words, despite one (“Gao Xing”) being substantially more descriptive than the other (“Kuai Le”) (Study 5). Therefore, we found that moral judgment plays a relatively unique role in happiness attributions, which is surprisingly early emerging and largely independent of linguistic and cultural influences, and thus likely reflects a fundamental cognitive feature of the mind.
Achievement Cognition: The Valuation of Goals, Ability and Uniqueness
As a basic psychological need, competence is what we desire and strive for throughout life. In this line of research, we explore the early underpinnings of competence-related cognition, on children’s understanding and valuation of goal pursuit, ability and and unique ideas/skills. We have found that children’s beliefs undergo very interesting changes during early childhood, paving the way for the pursuit of real competence in school and in life.
Yang, F., & Frye, D. (2017). When preferences are in the way: Children’s predictions of goal-directed behaviors. Developmental Psychology, 54, 1051-1062.
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.
Yang, F., & Frye, D. (2016). Early understanding of ability. Cognitive Development, 38, 49-62.
Preschoolers’ understanding of ability was examined in three studies. Three- to 5-year-olds evaluated the abilities of two characters whose performances were inconsistent with their actual abilities because of an interfering event. Results revealed an age-related change in children’s understanding of ability: Three-year-olds evaluated the character who produced the better outcome as more competent, whereas 5-year-olds judged the character who originally had higher ability was more capable and predicted he would do better with no disruption. Study 2 replicated these results with modified stories and also found that the understanding of ability and false belief were related. Study 3 obtained similar results with a simplified story using concrete information about physical ability, interfering event, and observable outcome. These results suggest that an early understanding of ability as differentiated from outcomes is present before the end of preschool years. The results are discussed in relation to the similarities and differences between children’s understanding of ability and belief.
Yang, F., Shaw, A., Garduno, E., & Olson, K. R. (2014). No one likes a copycat: A cross-cultural investigation of children’s response to plagiarism. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 121, 111-119.
Copying other people’s ideas is evaluated negatively by American children and adults. The current study investigated the influence of culture on children’s evaluations of plagiarism by comparing children from three countries—the United States, Mexico, and China—that differ in terms of their emphasis on the protection of intellectual property and ideas. Children (3- to 6-year-olds) were presented with videos involving two characters drawing pictures and were asked to evaluate the character who drew unique work or the character who copied someone else’s drawing. The study showed that 5- and 6-year-olds from all three cultures evaluated copiers negatively compared with unique drawers. These results suggest that children from cultures that place different values on the protection of ideas nevertheless develop similar concerns with plagiarism by 5-year-olds.
Culturally-Valued Competence and Personality:
How do we overcome the social and psychological consequences of negative dispositional tendencies (e.g., shyness and aggression)? Our research suggests that having culturally-valued competence matters. We found that academic achievement–a highly valued competence in China–buffers the maladjustment of shy and aggressive children and promote positive adjustment.
Fu, R., Chen, X., Wang, L., & Yang, F. (2016). Developmental trajectories of academic achievement in Chinese children: Contributions of early social-behavioral functioning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108, 1001.
This study explored the developmental trajectories of academic achievement and the contributions of early social behaviors and problems to these trajectories in Chinese children. Data were collected each year in 5 consecutive years from a sample of elementary schoolchildren in China (initially N 1,146, 609 boys, initial M age 8.33 years). Four distinct academic achievement trajectories were identified: low-stable, high/moderate-decreasing, high-increasing, and high-stable. Children high on sociability and low on externalizing behaviors and girls were more likely to be classified in the higher academic achievement trajectories. Initial higher levels of social competence were associated with lower decreasing rates of academic achievement within the high/moderate-decreasing trajectory. Initial lower levels of shyness and fewer externalizing behaviors predicted higher growth rates within the high-increasing trajectory. In addition, within the low-stable trajectory, children initially low on shyness and high on social-behavioral problems remained poor in academic achievement over time. The results suggest the
significance of social-behavioral functioning in predicting the distinctive trajectories of academic achievement in Chinese children.
Yang, F., Chen, X., & Wang, L. (2015). Shyness‐sensitivity and social, school, and psychological adjustment in urban Chinese children: A four‐wave longitudinal study. Child development, 86, 1848-1864.
This study examined reciprocal contributions between shyness-sensitivity and social, school, and psychological adjustment in urban Chinese children. Longitudinal data were collected once a year from Grade 3 to Grade 6 (ages 9–12 years) for 1,171 children from multiple sources. Shyness-sensitivity positively contributed to social, school, and psychological difficulties over time, with the most consistent effects on peer preference and loneliness. Social and school adjustment negatively contributed to the development of shyness-sensitivity. The initial levels of shyness-sensitivity and social and school adjustment moderated the growth of each other, mainly as a resource-potentiating factor. The results indicate the significance of shyness-sensitivity for adjustment and the role of adjustment in the development of shyness-sensitivity in today’s urban Chinese society.
Yang, F., Chen, X., & Wang, L. (2014). Relations between aggression and adjustment in Chinese children: Moderating effects of academic achievement. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 43, 656-669.
The primary purpose of the study was to examine the moderating effects of academic achievement on relations between aggressive behavior and social and psychological adjustment in Chinese children. A sample of children (N¼1,171; 591 boys, 580 girls; initial M age¼9 years) in China participated in the study. Two waves of longitudinal data were collected in Grades 3 and 4 from multiple sources including peer nominations, teacher ratings, self-reports, and school records. The results indicated that the main effects of aggression on adjustment were more evident than those of adjustment on aggression. Moreover, aggression was negatively associated with later leadership status and positively associated with later peer victimization, mainly for high-achieving children. The results suggested that consistent with the resource-potentiating model, academic achievement served to enhance the positive development of children with low aggression. On the other hand, although the findings indicated fewer main effects of adjustment on aggression, loneliness, depression, and perceived social incompetence positively predicted later aggression for low-achieving, but not high-achieving, children, which suggested that consistent with the stress-buffering model, academic achievement protected children with psychological difficulties from developing aggressive behavior. The results indicate that academic achievement is involved in behavioral and socioemotional development in different manners in Chinese children. Researchers should consider an integrative approach based on children’s behavioral, psychological, and academic functions in designing prevention and intervention programs.
Chen, X., Zhao, S., & Yang, F. (2014). Cultural perspectives on shyness inhibition. In J. B. Burack, & L. A. Schmidt (Eds.), Cultural and contextual perspectives on development atrisk. New York: University of Cambridge Press.
Chen, X., Yang, F., & Wang, L. (2013). Relations between shyness-sensitivity and internalizing problems in Chinese children: Moderating effects of academic achievement. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 41, 825-836.
Shy-sensitive children are likely to develop adjustment problems in today’s urban China as the country has evolved into an increasingly competitive, marketoriented society. The main purpose of this one-year longitudinal study was to examine the moderating effects of
academic achievement on relations between shynesssensitivity and later internalizing problems in Chinese children. A sample of 1171 school-age children (591 boys, 580 girls) in China, initially at the age of 9 years, participated in the study. Data on shyness, academic achievement, and internalizing problems were collected from multiple sources including peer evaluations, teacher ratings, self-reports, and school records. It was found that shyness positively and uniquely predicted later loneliness, depression, and teacher-rated internalizing problems, with the stability effect controlled, for low-achieving children, but not for high-achieving children. The results indicate that, consistent with the stress buffering model, academic achievement may be a buffering factor that serves to protect shy-sensitive children from developing psychological problems.