How origin stories shape children's social reasoning

Emily Foster-Hanson, Marjorie Rhodes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


How do we explain the behavior of the many people we meet throughout our lives? Children and adults sometimes consider other people in terms of their social category memberships (e.g., assuming that a girl likes pink because she is a girl), but people view some categories as more informative than others, and which people think of as informative varies across cultural contexts. One type of culturally-embedded knowledge that appears to shape whether people view particular categories as providing explanations for behavior are beliefs about how the category came to be. In the current studies with 4- to 5-year-old children (N = 206), we ask how learning about quasi-scientific or supernatural causal origins of a category shapes young children's use of categories to predict and explain what category members are like. In Study 1, children more often used a category to explain behavior when they heard the category described as intentionally created by a powerful being than when they heard no explicit information about its origins. In Studies 2 and 3, learning about both quasi-scientific and supernatural causal origins shaped children's social category beliefs via a common mechanism: by signaling that the category marked a non-arbitrary way of dividing up the social world.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number100962
JournalCognitive Development
StatePublished - Oct 1 2020


  • Animal categories
  • Causal reasoning
  • Cognitive development
  • Essentialism
  • Social categorization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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