Developing notions of free will: Preschoolers’ understanding of how intangible constraints bind their freedom of choice


Our folk psychology involves the ability to reason about free will. In a series of experiments, we looked at young children’s ability to reason about their own freedom of choice, and contrast this with their ability to reason about situations that constrain it. We asked preschoolers (Range: 4 y; 1 mo. – 5 y; 7 mo.) whether they had the choice to have done otherwise when they did not have the necessary knowledge to do so (epistemic constraint), had the moral duty not to do so (moral constraint), preferred not to do so (preference constraint), were told not to do so (permissive constraint), or were told that everyone else did not do so (conformist constraint). Results suggest that while preschool children generally believe their actions are freely chosen, they also understand how psychological, social and moral considerations may constrain their actions. These results have implications for children’s developing notions of free will and moral reasoning.

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