The crossroads of theory of mind and moral reasoning: intention†


  • Adam Cohen Department of Psychology and Center for Cognitive Science, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, NJ 08901


What is the relationship between moral judgment and the child's "theory of mind?" The present studies address whether preschool children can attribute the mental state, caring/not caring, and judge whether the consequences of an act were intended or not, as a function of the moral valence of the consequence. Pilot data suggested that younger children might not understand "not caring." Experiment 1 examined whether children, 3- to 5-years-old, could predict the affective state of someone who either cared or did not care about a food object or a person under different circumstances. Regarding objects, the results showed that 3-, 4-, and 5-year olds have adult-like intuitions regarding caring about objects and not caring about objects. The pattern of data was similar across the three age groups, but with strengthening effects across age. The "caring about people" results indicated that children were more likely to say that a person would feel happy or sad if someone they cared about was happy or sad. On the other hand, children tended to say that a person would feel neutral if someone else was happy or sad if the person did not care about the other person. These results demonstrate an understanding of both caring and not caring about people.

Experiment 2 explored how caring/not caring interacts with a judgment of "on purpose" in moral contexts. Adults have recently been shown to make asymmetric judgments of intention depending on whether a consequence of an action, that a protagonist does not care about, is beneficial or harmful to others. If the not-cared-about side effectside effect is beneficial, adults judge that the actor did not intend it. If the side effectside effect is harmful then the actor is judged to have brought it about intentionally. Preschool children, 3-, 4-, and 5-years-old were tested on scenarios in which an actor knew about, but did not care about, a side effectside effect of one of their actions. A control question screened for an understanding of "not caring that [someone would be harmed…]." A test question then required the subject to judge whether the side effectside effect of the action was brought about "on purpose." The results showed that for those children who failed the control "do not care that…" question, there was an overall bias to answer, "yes" to the "on purpose" question. However, the majority of children (aged 5 years), who passed the "not care" control question, showed the adult-like asymmetry, judging the side effectside effect to have been brought about intentionally when harmful, and to have been unintentional when beneficial. This is the first study to examine the relationship between developing 'theory of mind' and moral judgment in preschoolers.

†Based closely on a thesis submitted in fulfillment of the requirements of The Henry Rutgers Scholars Program and written under the direction of Dr. Alan Leslie, April 2004.


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Author Biography

Adam Cohen, Department of Psychology and Center for Cognitive Science, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, NJ 08901

Rutgers Undergraduate Research Fellow




How to Cite

Cohen, A. (2004). The crossroads of theory of mind and moral reasoning: intention†. The Rutger Scholar, 6. Retrieved from