Whom will Granny thank? Thinking about what could have been informs children’s inferences about relative helpfulness

AbstractTo evaluate others’ actions, we consider action outcomes (e.g., positive or negative) and the actors’ underlying intentions (e.g., intentional or accidental). However, we often encounter situations where neither actual outcomes nor intentions provide useful evidence for evaluation but representations of unrealized (counterfactual) outcomes matter. Here we ask whether preschool-aged children consider counterfactual outcomes to evaluate whose action was more helpful. When two agents each caught one of two falling apples (one caught it above a trash can and the other above a fruit basket), children chose the former as the one who should be thanked (because otherwise the apple would’ve fallen into the trash). When the agents caught crushed cans, however, children made the opposite choice, choosing the agent who caught the can over the fruit basket. Even though preschoolers typically struggle with counterfactuals, children in our task readily engaged in such reasoning in the context of social evaluation.

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