Who is better? Preschoolers infer relative competence based on efficiency of process and quality of outcome.

AbstractThe ability to reason about our own and others' competence informs our everyday decisions. However, competence is an abstract concept which manifests in the objective properties of the task completed by an agent (i.e., task-based features, such as quality of outcome or task difficulty) as well as the subjective properties of the agent (i.e., agent-based features, such as dexterity, speed, focus). Thus, acquiring an integrated notion of competence may be a nontrivial challenge for young children. Prior work on children's understanding of competence has often used explicit verbal cues to describe the relevant features, or experimental tasks that confounded these features. Here we examine how preschool-aged children evaluate the relative competence of two agents by systematically manipulating task-based and agent-based features without explicit linguistic or gestural support. We find that 4- and 5-year-olds readily use perceptual cues to task-based (i.e., task difficulty) and agent-based (i.e., agent speed) features to infer competence (Exp.1-3) but not when when these perceptual cues are closely matched (Exp.4). These results suggest that a basic understanding of relative competence emerges earlier than previously believed, but an abstract, adult-like concept of competence may continue to develop throughout childhood.

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