Michael Tomasello's research while affiliated with Duke University and other places

Publications (803)

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The cooperative eye hypothesis posits that human eye morphology evolved to facilitate cooperation. Although it is known that young children prefer stimuli with eyes that contain white sclera, it is unknown whether white sclera influences children’s perception of a partner’s cooperativeness specifically. In the current studies, we used an online met...
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Although theorists agree that social interactions play a major role in moral development, previous research has not experimentally assessed how specific features of social interactions affect children’s moral judgments and reasoning. The current study assessed two features: disagreement and justification. In a brief training phase, children aged 4–...
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Great apes can discern what others are attending to and even direct others' attention to themselves in flexible ways. But they seemingly do not coordinate their attention with one another recursively—understanding that the other is monitoring their attention just as they are monitoring hers—in acts of joint attention, at least not in the same way a...
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Twenty-five years ago, at the founding of this journal, there existed only a few conflicting findings about great apes’ social-cognitive skills (theory of mind). In the 2 ½ decades since, we have discovered that great apes understand the goals, intentions, perceptions, and knowledge of others, and they use this knowledge to their advantage in compe...
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Chimpanzees and humans are close evolutionary relatives who behave in many of the same ways based on a similar type of agentive organization. To what degree do they experience the world in similar ways as well? Using contemporary research in evolutionarily biology and animal cognition, I explicitly compare the kinds of experience the two species of...
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Several species can detect when they are uncertain about what decision to make-revealed by opting out of the choice, or by seeking more information before deciding. However, we do not know whether any nonhuman animals recognize when they need more information to make a decision because new evidence contradicts an already-formed belief. Here, we exp...
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Reaching agreements in conflicts is an important developmental challenge. Here, German 5‐year‐olds (N = 284, 49% female, mostly White, mixed socioeconomic backgrounds; data collection: June 2016–November 2017) faced repeated face‐to‐face bargaining problems in which they chose between fair and unfair reward divisions. Across three studies, children...
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We investigated children's positive emotions as an indicator of their underlying prosocial motivation. In Study 1, 2‐ and 5‐year‐old children (N = 64) could either help an individual or watch as another person provided help. Following the helping event and using depth sensor imaging, we measured children's positive emotions through changes in postu...
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The biological approach to culture focuses almost exclusively on processes of social learning, to the neglect of processes of cultural coordination including joint action and shared intentionality. In this paper, we argue that the distinctive features of human culture derive from humans' unique skills and motivations for coordinating with one anoth...
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Significance Humans, as compared with other animals, create and follow conventional norms that determine how we greet each other, dress, or play certain games. Conventional norms are universal in all human societies, but it is an open question whether individuals in all societies also actively enforce conventional norms when others in their group b...
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More basic than the authors' distinction between knowing and believing is a distinction between knowledge-by-acquaintance (I know John Smith) and propositional knowledge/belief (I know/believe that John Smith lives in Durham). This distinction provides a better account of both the comparative and developmental data.
Preprint
There are sometimes legitimate reasons for breaking a promise when circumstances change. We investigated 3- and 5-year-old German children’s understanding of promise breaking in prosocial (helping someone else) and selfish (playing with someone else) conditions. In Study 1 (n = 80, 50% girls), preschoolers initially kept their own promise in all co...
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Recent research suggests that young children’s causal justification for minimal group membership can be induced via a cognitive framework of mutual intentionality. That is, an individual can become a group member when both the individual and group agree to membership. Here, we investigated if children ages 3–5 understand groups formed by mutual int...
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There are sometimes legitimate reasons for breaking a promise when circumstances change. We investigated 3- and 5-year-old German children’s understanding of promise breaking in prosocial (helping someone else) and selfish (playing with someone else) conditions. In Study 1 (n = 80, 50% girls), preschoolers initially kept their own promise in all co...
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By around 3 years of age, collaboration induces in young children a normative sense of "we" that creates a sense of obligation (e.g., commitment, fairness) toward their collaborative partner. The current study investigated whether this normative sense of we could be induced purely verbally in 3- and 4-year-old children. Children joined a puppet at...
Preprint
Recent research suggests that young children’s causal justification for minimal group membership can be induced via a cognitive framework of mutual intentionality. That is, an individual can become a group member when both the individual and group agree to membership. Here, we investigated if children ages 3-5 understand groups formed by mutual int...
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I respond to Moll, Nichols, and Mackey’s review of my book Becoming Human. I agree with many of their points, but have my own point of view on some others.
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As members of cultural groups, humans continually adhere to social norms and conventions. Researchers have hypothesized that even young children are motivated to act conventionally, but support for this hypothesis has been indirect and open to other interpretations. To further test this hypothesis, we invited 3.5-year-old children ( N = 104) to hel...
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Growing evidence indicates that our higher rational capacities depend on social interaction—that only through engaging with others do we acquire the ability to evaluate beliefs as true or false, or to reflect on and evaluate the reasons that support our beliefs. Up to now, however, we have had little understanding of how this works. Here we argue t...
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After two strangers have briefly interacted with one another, both believe that they like their partner more than their partner likes them. A plausible explanation for this liking gap is that people are constantly worrying about how others are evaluating them. If so, one would expect the liking gap to emerge in young children as they become more co...
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Adults under time pressure share with others generously, but with more time they act more selfishly. In the current study, we investigated whether young children already operate in this same way, and, if so, whether this changes over the preschool and early school age years. We tested 144 children in three age groups (3-, 5-, and 7-year olds) in a...
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A key skill in collaborative problem-solving is to communicate and evaluate reasons for proposals to arrive at the decision benefiting all group members. Although it is well-documented that collaborative contexts facilitate young children's reasoning, less is known about whether competition with other groups contributes to children's collaborative...
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Previous comparisons of language and morality have taken a cognitively internalist (i.e., within-minds) perspective. We take a socially externalist (i.e., between-minds) perspective, viewing both language and morality as forms of social action. During human evolution, social cognitive adaptations for cooperation evolved, including cooperative commu...
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Two‐ and 3‐year‐old children (N = 96) were tested in an object‐choice task with video presentations of peer and adult partners. An immersive, semi‐interactive procedure enabled both the close matching of adult and peer conditions and the combination of participants’ choice behavior with looking time measures. Children were more likely to use inform...
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For obvious and very good reasons the study of human communication is dominated by the study of language. But from a psychological point of view, the basic structure of human communication – how it works pragmatically in terms of the intentions and inferences involved - is totally independent of language. The most important data here are acts of hu...
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Although there is considerable evidence that at least some helping behavior is motivated by genuine concern for others’ well-being, sometimes we also help solely out of a sense of obligation to the persons in need. Our sense of obligation to help may be particularly strong when there is common knowledge between the helper and the helpee that the he...
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Moral judgments can vary depending on the social relationship between agents. We presented 4- and 6-year-old peer dyads (N = 128) with stories, in which a parent (parent condition) or a peer protagonist (peer condition) faced a child in need of help (e.g., the child is thirsty). The dyads had to decide whether the protagonist helped at a cost (e.g....
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Chimpanzees help conspecifics achieve their goals in instrumental situations, but neither their immediate motivation nor the evolutionary basis of their motivation is clear. In the current study, we gave chimpanzees the opportunity to instrumentally help a conspecific to obtain food. Following recent studies with human children, we measured their p...
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To create social closeness, humans engage in a variety of social activities centered around shared experiences. Even simply watching the same video side by side creates social closeness in adults and children. However, perhaps surprisingly, a similar psychological mechanism was recently shown in great apes. Here we asked whether the process by whic...
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Individuals with an advantageous position during a negotiation possess leverage over their partners. Several studies with adults have investigated how leverage can influence the coordination strategies of individuals when conflicts of interest arise. In this study, we explored how pairs of 7-year-old children solved a coordination game (based on th...
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Young children help and share with others, but little is known about the “how” and “who” of this early prosocial behavior. In the current study, we compared 2- and 3-year-old children’s (N = 203; 101 girls) prosocial behavior of sharing and helping. We asked whether the process was different (a) if the social partner was an adult or a same-age peer...
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Little is known about the underlying emotional bases of children’s prosociality. Here we engaged 32 dyads of 4-year-old children in a reward-collecting task at the end of which one child was more in need of help. An adult then either helped the needier child (deserving outcome) or the less needy child (less deserving outcome). Both children express...
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The key context within which preschool children learn to justify beliefs with reasons is collaborative problem‐solving and decision‐making with peers, including in the moral domain, in which they engage with another coequal mind in a cooperative spirit. Evidence for this proposal comes from recent studies in which children demonstrated sensitivity...
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This special issue focuses on the relationship between life history and learning, especially during human evolution. ‘Life history’ refers to the developmental programme of an organism, including its period of immaturity, reproductive rate and timing, caregiving investment and longevity. Across many species an extended childhood and high caregiving...
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Humans possess some unique social-cognitive skills and motivations, involving such things as joint attention, cooperative communication, dual-level collaboration and cultural learning. These are almost certainly adaptations for humans' especially complex sociocultural lives. The common assumption has been that these unique skills and motivations em...
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The current study aimed to investigate the cultural differences in the developmental origins of children’s intent-based moral judgment and moral behavior in the context of indirect reciprocity. To this end, we compared how German and Chinese children interpret and react to antisocial and prosocial interactions between puppets. An actor puppet perfo...
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Cumulative cultural learning has been argued to rely on high-fidelity copying of other individuals’ actions. Iconic gestures of actions have no physical effect on objects in the world but merely represent actions that would have an effect. Learning from iconic gestures thus requires paying close attention to the teacher’s precise bodily movements—a...
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One of the challenges of collaboration is to coordinate decisions with others, and recent theories have proposed that humans, in particular, evolved skills to address this challenge. To test this hypothesis, we compared the coordination abilities of 4-year-old children and chimpanzees with a simple coordination problem. To retrieve a reward from a...
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In this paper, I approach epistemic norms from an ontogenetic point of view. I argue and present evidence that to understand epistemic norms – e.g., scientific norms of methodology and the evaluation of evidence – children must first develop through their social interactions with others three key concepts. First is the concept of belief, which prov...
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My response to the commentaries focuses on four issues: (1) the diversity both within and between cultures of the many different faces of obligation; (2) the possible evolutionary roots of the sense of obligation, including possible sources that I did not consider; (3) the possible ontogenetic roots of the sense of obligation, including especially...
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People frequently need to cooperate despite having strong self-serving motives. In the current study, pairs of 5- and 7-year-olds (N = 160) faced a one-shot coordination problem: To benefit, children had to choose the same of 3 reward divisions. They could not communicate or see each other and thus had to accurately predict each other's choices to...
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Collaborative reasoning requires partners to evaluate options and the evidence for or against each option. We investigated whether preschoolers can explain why one option is best (direct reasons) and why the other option is not (indirect reasons), looking at both problems that have a correct answer and those that require choosing the better option....
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How the world’s 6,000+ natural languages have arisen is mostly unknown. Yet, new sign languages have emerged recently among deaf people brought together in a community, offering insights into the dynamics of language evolution. However, documenting the emergence of these languages has mostly consisted of studying the end product; the process by whi...
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Humans, including young children, are strongly motivated to help others, even paying a cost to do so. Humans’ nearest primate relatives, great apes, are likewise motivated to help others, raising the question of whether the motivations of humans and apes are the same. Here we compared the underlying motivation to help of human children and chimpanz...
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In collaborative problem solving, children produce and evaluate arguments for proposals. We investigated whether 3‐ and 5‐year‐olds (N = 192) can produce and evaluate arguments against those arguments (i.e., counter‐arguments). In Study 1, each child within a peer dyad was privately given a reason to prefer one over another solution to a task. One...
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Human social relationships are often formed through shared social activities in which individuals share mental states about external stimuli. Previous work on joint attention has shown that even minimal shared experiences such as watching something together facilitates social closeness between individuals. Here, we examined whether young children a...
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When reasoning with others, the reasons used in an exchange can have varying degrees of quality, irrespective of the facts under discussion. Partners often evaluate one another’s evaluation of reasons – one another’s reasoning. Can children evaluate their partner’s judgment of the quality of reasons independent of objective truth? 5- and 7-year-old...
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Chimpanzees hunt cooperatively in the wild, but the factors influencing food sharing after the hunt are not well understood. In an experimental study, groups of three captive chimpanzees obtained a monopolizable food resource, either via two individuals cooperating (with the third as bystander) or via one individual acting alone alongside two bysta...
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Children encounter moral norms in several different social contexts. Often it is in hierarchically structured interactions with parents or other adults, but sometimes it is in more symmetrically structured interactions with peers. Our question was whether children's discussions of moral norms differ in these two contexts. Consequently, we had 4- an...
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We investigated whether chimpanzees use the temporal sequence of external events to determine causation. Seventeen chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) witnessed a human experimenter press a button in two different conditions. When she pressed the “causal button” the delivery of juice and a sound immediately followed (cause-then-effect). In contrast, she...
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This study investigated how the presence of others and anticipated distributions for self influence children's fairness-related decisions in two different socio-moral contexts. In the first part, three- and five-year-old children (N = 120) decided between a fair and an unfair wheel of fortune to allocate resources (procedural justice). In the secon...
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In both the wild and captivity, chimpanzees engage in reciprocal patterns of prosocial behavior. However, the proximate mechanisms underlying these patterns are unclear. In the current study, we investigated whether chimpanzees prefer to act prosocially toward conspecifics who have directly benefited them (perhaps based on an affective bond) or whe...
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A natural reaction to receiving help from someone is to help that person in return. In two studies, we investigated the developmental origins of children's motivation to return help. In Study 1, 18- and 24-month-old toddlers were either helped or not helped by an adult, and they could subsequently provide that adult with help or else observe anothe...
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To understand themselves as playing a social role, individuals must understand themselves to be contributing to a cooperative endeavor. Psychologically, the form of cooperation required is a specific type that only humans may possess, namely, one in which individuals form a joint or collective agency to pursue a common end. This begins ontogenetica...
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Ownership is a cornerstone of many human societies and can be understood as a cooperative arrangement, where individuals refrain from taking each other's property. Owners can thus trust others to respect their property even in their absence. We investigated this principle in 5- to 7-year-olds (N = 152) from 4 diverse societies. Children participate...
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When young children form a joint commitment with a partner, they understand that this agreement generates obligations. In this study, we investigated whether young children understand that joint commitments, and their associated obligations, may likewise be dissolved by agreement. The participants (3- and 5-year-olds; N = 144) formed a joint commit...
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Humans create social closeness with one another through a variety of shared social activities in which they align their emotions or mental states towards an external stimulus such as dancing to music together, playing board games together or even engaging in minimal shared experiences such as watching a movie together. Although these specific behav...
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We and our colleagues have been doing studies of great ape gestural communication for more than 30 years. Here we attempt to spell out what we have learned. Some aspects of the process have been reliably established by multiple researchers, for example, its intentional structure and its sensitivity to the attentional state of the recipient. Other a...
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Children’s moral behavior is guided, in part, by adults teaching children how to treat others. However, when circumstances change, such instructions may become either unhelpful or limiting. In the current study, 48 dyads of 5-year-olds played a collaborative game and either (a) received an instruction by an adult to share the spoils of the game equ...
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To assess children's cognitive capacities to understand (rather than explain or paraphrase) metaphors, we investigated how 3-year-olds (n = 36; 3;0–3;3) fare with novel metaphors corresponding to their world knowledge and linguistic competences using a behavioural choice paradigm. In a game, participants had to give the experimenter one of two obje...
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Although psychologists have paid scant attention to the sense of obligation as a distinctly human motivation, moral philosophers have identified two of its key features: first, it has a peremptory, demanding force, with a kind of coercive quality, and second, it is often tied to agreement-like social interactions (e.g., promises) in which breaches...
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Competition over scarce resources is common across the animal kingdom. Here we investigate the strategies of chimpanzees and children in a limited resource problem. Both species were presented with a tug-of-war apparatus in which each individual in a dyad received a tool to access a reward, but tools could not be used simultaneously. We assessed th...
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Access to and control of resources is a major source of costly conflicts. Animals, under some conditions, respect what others control and use (i.e., possession). Humans not only respect possession of resources, they also respect ownership. Ownership can be viewed as a cooperative arrangement, where individuals inhibit their tendency to take others’...
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Successful collaboration often relies on individuals' capacity to communicate with each other. Despite extensive research on chimpanzee communication, there is little evidence that chimpanzees are capable, without extensive human training, of regulating collaborative activities via communication. This study investigated whether pairs of chimpanzees...
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One influential view holds that children's sense of fairness emerges at age 8 and is rooted in the development of an aversion to unequal resource distributions. Here, we suggest two amendments to this view. First, we argue and present evidence that children's sense of fairness emerges already at age 3 in (and only in) the context of collaborative a...
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At around their third birthday, children begin to enforce social norms on others impersonally, often using generic normative language, but little is known about the developmental building blocks of this abstract norm understanding. Here we investigate whether even toddlers show signs of enforcing on others interpersonally how “we” do things. In an...
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Humans are frequently required to coordinate their actions in social dilemmas (e.g. when one of two drivers has to yield for the other at an intersection). This is commonly achieved by individuals following communally known rules that prescribe how people should behave. From relatively early in development, children swiftly pick up the rules of the...
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Reputational concerns are known to promote cooperation. Individuals regularly act more prosocially when their behavior is observable by others. Here, we investigate 4- and 5-year-old (N = 144) children’s reputational strategies in a competitive group setting. The aim of the current study was to explore whether children’s sharing behavior is affecte...
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Social primates can influence others through the control of resources. For instance, dominant male chimpanzees might allow subordinates access to mate with females in exchange for social support. However, little is known about how chimpanzees strategically use a position of leverage to maximize their own benefits. We address this question by presen...
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The problem with collaboration is that there are temptations to defect. Explicit joint commitments are designed to mitigate some of the risks, but people also feel committed to others implicitly when they both know together that they each hold the other’s fate in their hands. In the current study, pairs of 3-year-old and 5-year-old children ( N = 1...
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Children must learn not to trust everyone to avoid being taken advantage of. In the current study, 5- and 7-year-old children were paired with a partner whose incentives were either congruent (cooperative condition) or conflicting (competitive condition) with theirs. Children of both ages were more likely to mistrust information spontaneously provi...
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The recognition of iconic correspondence between signal and referent has been argued to bootstrap the acquisition and emergence of language. Here we study the ontogeny, and to some extent the phylogeny, of the ability to spontaneously relate iconic signals, gestures and/or vocalizations, to previous experience. Children at 18, 24, and 36 months of...
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To predict and explain the behavior of others, one must understand that their actions are determined not by reality but by their beliefs about reality. Classically, children come to understand beliefs, including false beliefs, at about 4-5 y of age, but recent studies using different response measures suggest that even infants (and apes!) have some...
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Cooperation often comes with the temptation to defect and benefit at the cost of others. This tension between cooperation and defection is best captured in social dilemmas like the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Adult humans have specific strategies to maintain cooperation during Prisoner’s Dilemma interactions. Yet, little is known about the ontogenetic and...
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Here I summarize the main points in my 2016 book, A Natural History of Human Morality. Taking an evolutionary point of view, I characterize human morality as a special form of cooperation. In particular, human morality represents a kind of we > me orientation and valuation that emanates from the logic of social interdependence, both at the level of...