Researcher in Profile: Kara Weisman on Children’s Development of Social Reasoning

By Chia-wa Yeh, Head Teacher and Research Coordinator 

Can robots have feelings? Do staplers get hungry? Can a mouse feel happy? These are some of the questions Stanford researcher Kara Weisman explores with adults and children regarding their understanding of the mental and inner lives of animate and inanimate beings. 
Weisman’s interest in the topic can be traced back to her toddlerhood, she says with a smile. One of her parents’ favorite stories about her is how, as a 2-year-old, she walked around for weeks cradling a tiny (perhaps imaginary) speck of dust in her hand. Whenever she had to do something else with her hands, she would ask her parents to take care of the dust speck for her. That was just the beginning of her many inanimate “friends”—from rocks that had names, to bouncy balls that went to “bouncing school,” to many cherished stuffed animals. 
Weisman, a doctoral student in developmental psychology at Stanford, grew up with her parents and sister in Lunenburg, Massachusetts. Theirs was a close-knit family, with many relatives within an hour’s drive. She stayed in New England for college, majoring in cognitive science at Yale University, where she also took lots of classes in philosophy, literature and Near Eastern studies. After college, Weisman wanted to see more of the country and worked as a lab manager at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and later at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education and Harvard University, prior to coming to Stanford to work with professors Ellen Markman and Carol Dweck. She began conducting studies at Bing Nursery School in 2013. 
What follows is a recent interview with Weisman about her research.
What is the topic of your studies?
I study how children and adults come to understand things like consciousness, personhood, and what it means to be alive. It sounds pretty philosophical, but it turns out that children spend a lot of time thinking about these kinds of things—for example, thinking about what animals do and how they feel, wondering about the possibility of intelligent robots or aliens. In fact, sometimes I find it easier to talk to preschoolers about these topics than to adults!
Tell us about the studies you’ve conducted at Bing. 
In the past year, I’ve been focused on two studies at Bing. About 170 children at Bing have participated in them.
The goal of the first study is to get a sense of children’s intuitions about mental life. When they think about different mental capacities—like emotional experiences, sensory abilities, cognitive skills, bodily sensations—which of these mental capacities seem to them to “go together”? And which kinds of beings in the world have these different mental capacities? To address these questions, I designed a game where the researcher (either me or one of my research assistants) asks the child many different questions about a particular being—for example, “Do you think a mouse can feel happy? Do you think a mouse can see things? Do you think a mouse can remember things? Do you think a mouse can get hungry?” Different children are asked about different beings—robots, beetles, dogs, children, teddy bears—and we’re interested in two things: whether answers to certain questions might cluster together (for instance, if children tend to either say “yes” or “no” to all of the different emotions we ask about), and how answers might vary across different beings. We are playing this game with 4- to 6-year-old children.
The second study is on a related topic: When do children think it is appropriate to say that something can get hungry, or have feelings, or think? In this game, the researcher plays a recording of someone saying a variety of sentences (for example, “Staplers can get hungry,” “Ice cream is very cold,” “Robots have feelings,” “Grownups can think”), and the child’s job is to say whether the sentence is “silly” or “normal.” This spring, children in Center AM and West AM enjoyed the game and were eager to play! We’re playing this game with 3 1/2- to 5 1/2-year-olds.
What are your findings so far? Were any surprising?
In studies with adults and older children (7 to 9 years old), I find that there are three “clusters” of mental capacities: bodily capacities (like hunger and pain), social-emotional capacities (like happiness and embarrassment) and perceptual-cognitive capacities (like seeing and thinking). It’s too early to tell what 4- to 6-year-old children think about this, as we need more participants—but I’m very curious to find out. 
In terms of which mental capacities different beings have, children’s answers to questions about more bodily capacities (like hunger) and perceptual-cognitive capacities (like thinking) look pretty similar to adults’: Humans and other animals are capable of both kinds of things, but technologies (like robots) might only have a few perceptual-cognitive abilities (such as “detecting sounds”), and no bodily abilities. But I was surprised to see that 4- and 5-year-olds (and even 7- to 9-year-olds) seem to attribute quite a lot of social-emotional abilities to beings like robots and beetles—for example, unlike adults, many children say that robots can feel happy or that beetles can feel embarrassed. 
Why learn about children’s development of social reasoning?
Thinking about the mental life of others is at the core of so much of our lives. For example, when we decide what is right or wrong and think about how to be a good person, we have to take into account how our actions make other people feel. When we try to help other people, we have to think about what they know and believe, what they are trying to do, and what they are capable of. And when we encounter new kinds of “creatures”—like the many robots, virtual personal assistants and other artificial intelligences that we now live with—we might use our understanding of mental life to make sense of what they are capable of and how we should interact with them.
What are your next steps?
I’m interested in following up on that last finding—trying to figure out what children mean when they say that a robot experiences emotions. How might books, movies and other media influence these judgments? Do children think that robot emotions are just like human emotions, or do they think they differ in some way? Are these kinds of attributions metaphorical (like when an adult says, “My computer hates me!”) or are children truly more open to the idea that inanimate technologies might have an emotional life?
This summer I started to explore the role of cultural context in shaping understandings of mental life. I’m collaborating with anthropology professor Tanya Luhrmann to run studies in Ghana, Thailand, China and Vanuatu. I expect that there will be some things we all have in common, and some things that people think about differently in different contexts—I am so curious to hear what children (and adults) in these different communities have to say about these questions! 
Do you have any anecdotes you’d like to share about doing research at Bing? 
Sometimes children say things to me that reveal how deeply they’re thinking about the world. For example, recently I was asking a 4-year-old child about the mental capacities of a mouse. When I asked, “Do you think a mouse can remember things?” the child said that a mouse might be able to remember things for just one minute, but then it would forget them unless it was thinking about them the whole time. It took cognitive psychologists a long time to understand this phenomenon!
Other times, children say things that are just so unexpected and funny—one of my greatest pleasures in spending time with preschoolers is their sense of humor. My favorite story is when I was trying out a new game that wasn’t quite perfected yet, and I asked a 4-year-old about whether a dog or a stapler was more likely to have feelings. The child said the stapler, and when I asked her why she thought that, she told me, “I have a brain in my leg, and my leg-brain told me.” It was not quite the explanation I was expecting! But interactions like this help me improve my games and make my time at Bing so fun and memorable.