Compared to adults, young children are more likely to believe that “mean” babies, kids, and teens will grow into “nice” adults. The study, published in the journal Cognitive Development, also found evidence that this positivity bias has to do with developmental differences in inhibitory control.
Adults frequently make predictions about other people’s behavior based on what they know about a person’s past actions. For example, knowing someone has acted meanly in the past leads us to expect that this person will behave meanly again in the future. Research suggests that children do not tend to make such inferences, however, until around the age of 7. Before then, children tend to show a bias whereby they expect positive traits and behaviors from everybody.
Study authors Hannah J. Kramer and her team say that children’s understanding of trait stability appears to develop alongside improvements in executive function. Between ages 3 and 7, children develop cognitive processes such as working memory and inhibitory control. The development of these abilities may allow children to overcome the positivity bias that prevents them from attending to other people’s negative traits.
Kramer and her colleagues conducted an experiment to explore age-related differences in beliefs about trait stability, as well as a possible mechanism for children’s positivity bias in trait reasoning. The researchers recruited children and adults of varying ages and divided the sample into four age groups — ages 4 to 5, ages 6 to 7, ages 8 to 10, and adults with an average age of 21.
The participants were each shown a sequence of six characters. The character sets were randomized but each one consisted of two babies, two kids, and two teenagers. As they were presented with each character, participants were told that the person was either “medium mean” or “medium nice” and then asked to make a prediction about the “meanness” or “niceness” of this character at other stages of life. For example, a forward prediction asked participants to judge the extent that a “medium mean” child will be mean or nice as a grownup. A backward prediction asked them to judge the extent that a “medium mean” child was once a mean or a nice baby.
Overall, participants of all ages expected characters who were labeled as nice to be nicer across different time points (as babies, kids, teenagers, and grownups) compared to characters who were labeled as mean. However, younger kids showed a positivity bias when judging characters who were labeled as mean. The 4- to 7-year-olds thought that “mean” characters would later become nicer grownups than did the 8- to 10-year-olds and adults.
Interestingly, the results revealed a u-shaped developmental curve when it came to backward predictions about how mean-labeled characters would have been as babies. Both adults and kids who were between 4 and 5 years old felt that mean characters were nicer as babies than did the 6- to 10-year-olds. One explanation for this could be that each age group was using different reasoning when drawing these inferences. The 4- to 5-year-olds likely inferred that mean adults used to be nicer as babies than did 6- to 10-year-olds due to a stronger positivity bias. Adults may have inferred mean adults to be nicer as babies by reasoning that a person’s personality is largely the product of their environment.
Next, the researchers found evidence that these age-related differences may have to do with developments in executive control. Their analysis found that participants with greater inhibitory control demonstrated greater belief in the stability of meanness — they were more likely to feel that characters described as mean had been mean as babies and would stay mean as adults. This link was not found for the stability of niceness. This suggests that, within the context of trait reasoning, the role of inhibitory control is to override the bias that everyone is “nice” and instead make inferences based on applicable evidence about a person’s behavior.
While the actual stability of personality traits is up for debate among personality psychologists, the findings suggest that the most advanced, adult way of thinking is to infer that traits are stable. The authors say their findings pave the way for future studies. “We look forward to further research that broadens trait reasoning away from an emphasis on what changes with age to a deeper understanding of the cognitive and social factors that contribute to age-related shifts and individual differences,” Kramer and colleagues conclude.
The study, “Children’s and adults’ beliefs about the stability of traits from infancy to adulthood: Contributions of age and executive function”, was authored by Hannah J. Kramer, Taylor D. Wood, Karen Hjortsvang Lara, and Kristin Hansen Lagattuta.