Current Research



Current Studies


Children’s beliefs about fairness and justice

We often share resources with other people. However, people sometimes divide resources in an unfair manner. What should be done when someone divides resources selfishly? Our study focuses on how children reason about different interventions on unfair resource allocations. Children will hear a story about a character who does not share candies with another person. In the story, two other characters intervene in different ways.Read More One character gives candies to the victim of the unfair allocation, while the other character takes candies away from the unfair divider. We will ask children questions about each character to know how they reason about the interventions. This study will help us understand how a sense of justice develops in childhood.

Research by Young-eun Lee


How do children learn to talk to different people?

Talk to Different People
Everyday, we change how we talk depending on who we’re talking to –an important skill to have if we do not want to come off as rude. For instance, you should not address the President as though he were a baby; doing so would be incredibly rude and possibly get you in trouble. At a young age, children develop this ability to adjust their speech appropriately for an addressee. But how do they learn to do so? Read More Do they just mimic what they hear their parents do? Or do they explore speech choices by trial and error? To find out, we are testing whether children can identify speech directed at different groups of people. What does speech directed to a baby sound like? How about speech directed to a teacher? Most critically, can children accurately detect appropriate speech directed to a social group they do not frequently interact with such as non-native speakers? That is, can they identify appropriate speech even if their parents do not often model for them? Finding out will give us deeper insight to this complex aspect of communication.

Research by Danielle Labotka

Children’s food concepts

Photo - DeJesus
While many interventions have been created to boost children’s nutrition knowledge, we know little about the other types of attitudes that children may have about food and how these change as children age. These attitudes may have important consequences for children’s food choices. Read MoreOur study is still ongoing but current data suggests 4 to 12 year-old children expect other people to prefer food and objects that are made by themselves (or by someone close to them) compared to a similar item made from a factory. This pattern seems to increase with age.

Research by Jasmine DeJesus

How children think about rules and language

Photo - Orvell
Imagine someone asks the question, “When do you brush your teeth?” Sam answers, “I brush my teeth in the morning” and Sally answers “You brush your teeth at night.” Whose response do you think is more correct? In this study, we are interested in whether certain pronouns, like “I” or “you,” can influence how children think about rules. In our study, we tell children pretend names for objects that they are probably unfamiliar with, and show them two different ways to use each object. We describe one way to use the object using “I” and describe the other way to use it using the generic usage of the word “you.” We then ask children which way they think is better. This research improves our understanding of how children’s sensitivity to language may help them learn new norms and rules for behavior.

Research by Ariana Orvell

The developing value of variety and scarcity

Children are developing consumers. Thus, it is critical to understand how they come to value items. Two possible cues that they may use to value items include variety and scarcity (Are varied sets more valuable than non-varied sets? Are scarce items are more valuable than non-scarce items?). To investigate whether children use these cues, we asked children 4-12 years (and adults) to select items for different recipients, including themselves. We found that children (and adults, alike) usually preferred varied sets for themselves and others; however, scarce items were rarely preferred. Read MoreThis suggests that the preference for variety is present early in development, whereas the preference for scarcity may be more dependent on context. Several open questions remain, some currently under investigation through the UM Living Lab!

Research by Margaret Echelbarger


What do kids think about robots?


Robots are increasingly a part of our lives. They can be found in schools, hospitals, and museums. In many of these places they’re teaching and playing with children! We, at the Living Lab, want to know what children think about these robots. To find out, we show children videos of different kinds of robots and ask children a series of questions about those robots. These questions aim to find whether children think robots can be hungry, scared, or know the difference between right or wrong. One finding is that children older than nine think human-like robots are creepy (just like adults!) but younger children don’t find these human-like robots creepy at all. We hope our research can improve the design of robots in the future so that they can work better with children.

Research by Kimberly Brink




Past Studies


Do children think that race can change?

Most adults believe that race is stable (the race you have as a child is the race you will have as an adult). In these studies, we questioned whether children also believed that race was stable, or whether this concept was learned over time. We found that White 9- to 10-year-olds believed that race was stable, whereas White 5- to 6-year-olds did not. Interestingly, Black 5- to 6-year-olds, like older White children (but unlike same-aged White children), believed that race was stable. These findings suggest that the belief that race is stable develops with age, and at different rates across racial groups.

Daily Mail Article | Publication
Research by Steven O Roberts

Who’s the Boss?

original_child_bossHow do children figure out who is in charge in different social settings (e.g., at home, in school, at a town hall meeting)? Are children able to pick up on subtle cues similarly to adults? In a series of studies that we conducted at the Living Lab, we presented children (ages 3 to 9) with illustrated stories describing a situation where one character had more power than the other character. For example, in one of the stories, two characters arrived at a sandbox and saw one toy that they both wanted to play with, but only one of them got to play with the toy. After each short story, we asked children who they thought was in charge, and why. Read MoreWe found that even our youngest age group of children (3- to 4-year-olds) easily identified characters who were in charge in situations where the character got more resources than the other, where the character got what they wanted over what the other character wanted, and when the character in charge was the one denying the other one permission. However, only around 7 to 9 years of age did children begin to show adult-like understanding of who is in charge in other more subtle situations, like when one character was setting trends for others to follow, or when one character was giving orders to the other character. This shows that younger children, even if they are given orders to clean their room or finish an activity by a teacher or parent, they may not know this means the adult giving orders is in charge!

Research by Selin Gülgöz

Children’s Beliefs about Race and Inheritance of Traits

We were interested in knowing whether children believe that people inherit certain traits through their racial background. For example, some people might think Black people or White people are naturally good or bad at certain things because of their race. This may lead to negative consequences such as racial stereotyping. In order to better understand this, we asked 80 Black and White children ages 4 to 12 whether children who were adopted by cross-race parents would inherit the traits of their biological parents (same-race parents) or adoptive parents (cross-race parents).Read More We found that 4-6-year-old Black participants believed White kids would be more like their biological parents than Black kids, and 10-12-year-old Black participants believed Black kids would be more like their biological parents than White kids. We didn’t find any age differences or kid race differences in White participants’ responses. These results indicate that Black children may see race as important for the traits that individuals inherit. This may be because race is a more relevant aspect of their lives as racial minorities. Given our small sample size, these results are preliminary and more data is needed to confirm these findings.

Research by Amber Williams

Understanding the Power of Thought

How do children and adults conceptualize the power of the mind? Parents may instruct their children to make a wish before blowing out their birthday candles or to pray before bedtime. We examine what children believe about these and other forms of mental activity. Children ages 3- to 11-years were read about a protagonist who desired for something to be achieved, and either wished or prayed for their desire to be fulfilled. Some of the desired outcomes could plausibly happen with ordinary human intervention (e.g., keeping a bowl from sliding off a table during an earthquake) and other outcomes were impossible, even with human intervention (e.g., keeping a crumbling, tilting building from falling during an earthquake). With increasing age, children increasingly reported that both plausible and impossible desires would not be fulfilled; and across the age range children reported that desires for impossible outcomes would be fulfilled less often than desires for plausible outcomes. Children’s judgments that wishes vs. prayers would be fulfilled were comparable, but did vary based on participants’ personal experiences with praying.

Research by Jonathan Lane

How does language compete?

Bilingualism is a typical experience, yet relatively little is known about its impact on children’s cognitive and language abilities. Bilinguals must continuously select the correct words for each language. We presented kids with competing words as they selected the image that matched one of them (ex: car, cat) and found that it took them longer than those that did not compete (ex: car, dog). Read MoreThe results helped us develop a task that we are now using for a neuroimaging study comparing bilinguals and monolinguals as they select words that compete in English.

Research by Maria Arredondo

Lessons Learned

How do children make meaning from negative experiences? To examine this question, we read children short stories that described everyday conflicts. Children were then asked to reflect on either the emotions the character felt in the story, or what lessons the character could learn from it. Children’s responses revealed that they were able to derive more meaning from the story when asked to discuss what lessons the character could learn. Read More Specifically, when discussing “lessons learned” children were more likely to use language that generalized the character’s experience beyond the here and now, demonstrating that they were framing the conflict within a broader context. This study sheds light on how children use language to make meaning from negative experiences.

Research by Ariana Orvell

Children’s everyday language use

How do children distinguish between norms–which apply to everyone, and preferences–which are specific to individuals? In our study, we found that children’s ability to differentiate between norms and preferences is built into their interpretation and use of language. Children as young as three years old were sensitive to subtle cues that signaled that a question referred to norms (e.g. “What do you do with books?”) versus preferences (e.g. “What do you like to do with books?”) as evidenced by their responses. Read MoreThis study sheds light on how children learn about norms and rules of behavior in their social world.

Research by Ariana Orvell

How does language impact memory?

This study investigated whether the type of language used can help and/or hinder children’s memory for facts. Sometimes we use certain words to refer to particular objects, animals or individuals; for example, “These goats have horns and like to eat grass.” But other times we use language to refer to them in a general manner, also knows as generic sentences; for example, “Goats have horns and like to eat grass.” We found that children remember more information when generic sentences are provided.

Research by Maria Arredondo

Children’s Understanding of their Future Selves

For children to achieve many of their future goals (e.g. going to college), they must take action now (e.g. doing their homework). To motivate children to take that necessary action requires that they understand that their current (“me now”) and future (“grown up me”) selves are connected. In our study, we had children consider their current and future selves as either connected or separated and assessed the effects of those ways of thinking on their behavior. We found that for children as young as 4th grade, having them think about the future as connected rather than separated increased their willingness to delay gratification – to sacrifice smaller immediate gains for larger, long-term gains.

Research by Neil Lewis, Jr

Children’s Thinking about Fair Reward and Punishment

brother and sister reading books on the floor
Previous research shows that even when young children know that some people are more deserving of rewards compared to others, they still often prefer to hang out reward equally if given a chance. Older children, like adults, tend to give more reward to those who are most deserving. This study, we asked the same type of questions, but asked how children would fairly distribute punishment, and found that this age difference was the same. In hypothetical scenarios, when one person did more of a bad thing than the other, the preschool-age participants often gave two negative consequences to each of the characters (an equal allocation). Read MoreIn contrast, the older children and adults preferred to allocate their punishments equitably, where a person who does more bad gets more punishment. This study demonstrates that there is a developmental shift toward a preference for allocating discipline based on deservingness—and away from a consistent preference for equal allocation.

News Article | Publication
Research by Craig Smith

Do Children’s Feelings about Spending Money Predict Their Financial Behavior?

In studies of adults, “tightwads” find spending money painful and “spendthrifts” do not find spending painful enough. These differences predict a variety of important financial behaviors and outcomes. In this study we asked if similar feelings about spending could be measured in 5-to- 10-year-old children. Using a special type of interview, we found that children are indeed able to report on their emotional responses to spending and saving, and these responses were related to parent reports of children’s financial behavior.Read More Children’s emotional responses to spending were also predictive of whether they chose to save or spend money in a little ‘store’ we established in the lab area. Therefore, positive and negative feelings about spending emerge early in life, and are useful predictors of how children make decisions about what to do with their money.

Research by Craig Smith and Margaret Echelbarger