Preschoolers slow to call people 'mean' says Wake Forest psychologist

By Cheryl Walker
May 2, 2006

Young children are reluctant to describe someone as mean, according to new research by Wake Forest University psychologist Janet Boseovski.

Janet Boseovski

The study, published in the May issue of Developmental Psychology, evaluated how much information preschoolers need before they assign a negative or positive characteristic to someone.

Boseovski and co-researcher Kang Lee of the University of California at San Diego found that young children, ages 3 to 6, were willing to generalize that a person is good or nice or kind because they were nice one time. But, the children in the study responded to negative information differently.

"They would not say, 'that person is mean because she was mean to that character once,'" Boseovski said. "We found that preschoolers are fairly good at judging others by looking at behavioral evidence, but they are also susceptible to certain biases, such as assuming people are kind."

In the first experiment, children heard a story about a character behaving positively, negatively or neutrally either to one character or to several different characters. Then, the children were asked to make personality judgments about the main character. If the children did not respond on their own, they were presented with three choices: "mean," "nice" or "not mean or nice."

Then, in a second experiment, the researchers presented one character behaving in various ways toward one other character.

"In both experiments, the children were reluctant to make negative trait attributions after hearing about one negative behavior, and only did so after several negative behaviors," said Boseovski, who is a visiting assistant professor of psychology at Wake Forest.

In contrast, children treated a single positive behavior and multiple positive behaviors exactly the same. In both situations, the young children judged the character as "nice."

"The children give the benefit of the doubt and attribute niceness, but not meanness, based on a single behavior," she said.

The study findings regarding this "positivity" bias have some practical applications.

"Knowing how young children judge other people is important for the design and implementation of street-proofing programs," Boseovski said. "While it is adaptive for young children to see the world in a positive way, because it encourages them to try new things and also fosters the formation of social relationships, it is also a concern in that they may be too trusting of strangers and acquaintances."

The research is the first to investigate systematically the effect of frequency information on preschoolers' personality judgments.

After identifying a positive or negative trait, the preschoolers were also able to predict that behavior again in the future, demonstrating that they understand that traits are stable characteristics that enable us to predict one's behavior, Boseovski said.

She also found that the youngest children in the study were better able to make judgments about personality when presented with the simpler scenarios involving one-on-one interactions between two characters presented in the second experiment.

The study confirms that children in this age group have a basic understanding of personality. Many researchers had thought young children could not form stable impressions until grade school age.