Preschoolers consider expected task difficulty to decide what to do and whom to help

AbstractThe ability to reason about task difficulty is critical for many real-world decisions. Building on prior work on preschoolers' inferences about the difficulty of novel physical tasks (Gweon et al., 2017), here we ask whether this ability further supports rational allocation of effort in collaborative and individual contexts. When an agent could offer help to someone who had to complete a hard task versus someone who had to complete an easy task, adults and preschoolers offered help with the harder task (Collaborative Goal). When an agent could choose to complete a hard task or an easy task to achieve the same outcome, adults and preschoolers preferentially chose the easier task (Individual Goal). In the absence of explicit information about the relative difficulty of tasks, even young children inferred the expected difficulty of tasks and appropriately allocated effort across agents and across tasks. Beyond expecting agents to choose actions that maximize their own utility in individual contexts, our results show that even preschool-aged children readily understand how deviating from this choice can be desirable in cooperative contexts.

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