A friend, or a toy? Four-year-olds strategically demonstrate their competence to a puppet but only when others treat it as an agent

AbstractOthers’ beliefs about the self can powerfully influence our everyday interactions with others. Recent work suggests that even preschool-aged children are sensitive to what others think of the self and actively attempt to manage these beliefs (Asaba & Gweon, 2018). What cognitive capacities underlie these early self-presentational behaviors, and in what contexts do these behaviors emerge? Here we show that preschoolers strategically demonstrate their competence to even a puppet, but only when an adult treats the puppet as an agent and specifically asks which toy the child wants to “show” to the puppet (Exp.1). However, they do not show such strategic demonstration of their competence when the same puppet is treated as an object (Exp.2). These results suggest that self-presentational behaviors can emerge even in the absence of any immediate prospect of social evaluation insofar as children consider the target entity as capable of holding beliefs. Furthermore, whether or not children ascribe a belief about the self to the target is heavily modulated by how an entity is treated by others. We discuss the relevance of these findings to early reputation management behaviors, and more broadly, the use of make-believe agents in developmental research.

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