Talk Series in
Developmental Social Cognition

Location: Meyer Building, Room 551
Time: 12:00pm - 1:30pm


October 12, 2018


Julian Jara-Ettinger, PhD
Assistant Professor of Psychology, Yale

The inner structure of goals:
costs, rewards, and commonsense psychology  

By kindergarten, our knowledge of agents has unfolded into a powerful intuitive theory that enables us to thrive in our social world. In this talk I will propose that human commonsense psychology is structured around a basic assumption that agents choose goals and actions by quantifying, comparing, and maximizing utilities. This Naïve Utility Calculus captures much of the rich social reasoning we engage in from early childhood. I explore this theory in a series of experiments looking at children's ability to reason about the causes behind other people's goals, their reasoning about knowledgeable versus ignorant agents, their ability to interpret ambiguous utterances, and their reasoning about the moral status of agents. Moreover, a formal model of this theory, embedded in a Bayesian framework, predicts with quantitative accuracy how humans attribute competence and motivation. The theory also offers insights into other phenomena in commonsense psychology that, on the surface, do not appear to involve utility maximization and may appear irrational.


November 9, 2018

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Sydney Levine, PhD
Postdoctoral Fellow, MIT

The Use of Moral Rules and Representations

We can think about a moral rule as a computation (or algorithm) that converts one representation (the input) another (the output). My work explores how studying moral rules can give us hints about how the moral world is represented (and often visa versa).  For example, if we find robust evidence that we use the moral rule “don’t hit others”, then this suggests that the concept “hit” must appear in our representation of the moral world, or we wouldn’t be able to figure out when the rule applies.  

In this talk, I present a case study of this dynamic exchange between the study of moral rules and representations.  In particular, I discuss evidence that preschoolers use a certain moral rule (the "means principle"), which, in order to be applied, requires the subject to represent the intention of an agent as organized into a hierarchical structure (that is, with sub-goals -- or "means" -- that are done in the service of super-ordinate goals).  This is the first evidence that young children use hierarchically structured intentions (rather than simply the goals of agents) to make moral judgments.

In the second part of the talk I'll discuss cases where subjects' intuitions can be modeled as being generated by an agreement-based kind of moral reasoning (a "virtual bargaining" process) rather than as emerging from strictly rule-based judgment.  I argue that this sort of "contract-based" moral reasoning may, paradoxically, be a lens through which we can understand how moral rules get formed and also how they are permissibly violated.

November 16, 2018

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Jan Engelmann, PhD
Postdoctoral Fellow, Yale
Assistant Professor of Psychology, UC Berkeley (July 2019)

The Sense of Fairness in Chimpanzees and Children

It is often argued that the sense of fairness consists in an aversion to unequal resource distributions. Standard accounts claim that chimpanzees react negatively to allocations in which they receive less than others, while children, from around 8 years onwards, also react negatively to allocations in which they receive more than others. I will review recent evidence suggesting two modifications of this view. First, I will argue and present evidence that chimpanzees’ reactions to unequal distributions are explainable in terms of general social expectations rather than fairness concerns. Second, I will argue and present evidence that children’s judgments about what is fair are essentially judgments about the social meaning of the distributive act. Children respond to unequal distributions not based on material dissatisfaction, but rather on interpersonal dissatisfaction: they want equal respect. The sense of fairness is thus ultimately about treating one another as equally deserving partners.