Young Kids See the Good in Others

Study Shows Children Aged 3-6 Are Slow to Judge Others as "Mean"

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on May 09, 2006
From the WebMD Archives

May 9, 2006 -- Want to soften your views of the people around you? You might want to follow a young child's example.

Young kids generally judge their peers as being "nice" and are slow to call them "mean," giving others "the benefit of the doubt," states a study in Developmental Psychology.

In the study, kids only needed one example of a kid acting nicely to call that child "nice." But they required about five times as much proof that the child was "mean."

Children attributed "niceness, but not meanness, on the basis of a single behavior," write the researchers, who included Wake Forest University psychologist Janet Boseovski, PhD.

Nice or Mean?

Boseovski's study included nearly 200 U.S. children aged 3-6 at day-care centers or schools. A teacher read each child stories about a fictional boy named Billy.

In the stories, Billy acts positively (sharing his Play-Doh with a classmate), negatively (stealing his classmate's toys or snacks), or neutrally (playing by himself).

The kids heard six versions of those stories. The kids either heard five positive stories and one neutral story, five neutral stories and one positive story, five negative stories and one neutral story, or five neutral stories and one negative story.

Afterwards, the teacher asked the child what they thought Billy would do in a similar situation, and what they thought of Billy. Children who didn't answer the second question were asked if Billy was "nice," "mean," "or "not nice or mean."

Benefit of the Doubt

The kids viewed Billy positively if they heard even one positive story about him. But they didn't judge Billy as being "mean" unless they heard five stories about Billy stealing other kids' toys.

Older kids were quicker to make predictions about how Billy would behave in similar situations, the study also shows.

Young kids may have a "positivity bias," the researchers write. That is, kids tend to see the good in others unless they have lots of evidence to the contrary.

In a Wake Forest University news release, Boseovski commented on the findings.

"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 that they may be too trusting of strangers and acquaintances."

The character in Boseovski's study was a child, not a grown-up. Further studies are needed to learn how kids form their views of people, the researchers write.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Boseovski, J. Developmental Psychology, May 2006; vol 42. News release, Wake Forest University.
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