Children's use of trait information to understand other people's emotions and behavior in novel situations
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The present study investigated children's ability to use trait information to predict other people's behavior and emotions. Kindergarten, second-grade, and fourth-grade children were presented with stories (accompanied by pictures) designed to illustrate traits. The trait information consisted of the protagonist's habitual past behavior in three different situations. After hearing the stories, children were required to predict and explain the protagonist's behavior or emotion in a new situation (subsequent event). Some children were given information about the subsequent event only (subsequent event condition) and some children heard the trait information plus the subsequent event (complete condition). Children were then asked to predict and explain the protagonist's emotion or behavior in the subsequent event. Children's responses in the complete condition were compared with children's responses in the subsequent condition and the difference was considered to indicate children's use of the trait information. A separate group of kindergarten and second-grade children were given the trait information and the subsequent event, plus information about the protagonist's likely emotional or behavioral reaction to the subsequent event. Children in this group (explanation condition) were only required to explain the stated emotion or behavior. Children in the complete and explanation conditions were also required to label the traits with appropriate dispositional descriptions. The results of this study show that children can make trait inferences from behavior. This study also demonstrates that children (even 6-year-olds) can use trait information to make trait-consistent predictions of behavior, suggesting that children perceive traits as stable and consistent characteristics of a person. However, children's ability to use trait information to make trait-consistent predictions of emotion seems to lag behind this level of competence. Knowledge of a person's emotion facilitates children's trait explanations of emotion, suggesting that children's ability to use trait information to explain known emotional reactions precedes their ability to use the information to predict another person's emotion. Additionally, this study demonstrates that children make more trait-consistent predictions for positive traits. Also knowledge of another person's emotion/behavior facilitates children's trait explanations of negative traits but not positive or neutral traits.