Preschoolers' explanations for intentional and unintentional behavior

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2004

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Browne, Cheryl Annette, 1973-

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In this dissertation I begin by discussing and evaluating various models for how people causally explain behavior in their everyday discourse. Using logical argument and empirical evidence I endorse a folk psychological model proposing that people explain intentional and unintentional actions differently. When a behavior is seen as being intentional it is usually explained by “reasons,” which specify the actor’s beliefs and/or desires that led to the intention to act. On the other hand, when a behavior is perceived to be unintentional it is predominantly explained by “causes,” which make reference to non-psychological forces on the actor that bring about action directly, without being mediated by intention. In two studies I investigated 4- to 6-year-olds’ understanding of the relation between the intentionality of an action and the type of explanation used to explain it. Experiment 1 consisted of trials in which children were told about two protagonists performing the same action; one was explained with a reason, and the other with a cause. Children indicated which protagonist performed the act on purpose. Experiment 2 was the reverse; each trial consisted of one story about a protagonist who performed an intentional or unintentional action. Children chose between a reason and a cause explanation for the act. Overall, children performed significantly above chance level for both studies, but when age groups were considered separately only the two older groups’ performance exceeded chance. This finding suggests that children begin to recognize the relation between action type and explanation type around the beginning of their sixth year, which is consistent with past studies showing related developments at that age. Performance on Experiment 1 was somewhat better than on Experiment 2, and only Experiment 1 showed an age effect. It is argued that these findings, combined with the fact that in Experiment 2 the “intentional” and the “unintentional” items were uncorrelated, suggest that two separate domains of knowledge – about the mind and about physical objects, with their separate characteristic modes of causation – become appropriated for the crucial task of explaining human behavior.

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