Children's Moral Reasoning about Attribution of Intentions: The Influence of Gender Stereotypes and Theory of Mind

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The present study investigated how holding gender stereotypes and having a false belief theory of mind impacts children's understanding of intentionality when evaluating morally relevant stories. Children 3 - 4, 5 - 6, and 7 - 8-years-of-age (N = 127) were interviewed about the intentions of a potential transgressor in two hypothetical stories. Both stories involved a child accidentally (or on purpose) putting another child's toy into their own backpack. One of the stories utilized the taking of a toy that was gender stereotype consistent (a girl taking a doll) while the other story involved a gender stereotype inconsistent toy (a boy taking a doll or a girl taking a truck). A false belief theory of mind task as well as gender stereotype knowledge, tolerance, and flexibility tasks were administered to each participant.

Results revealed that children over-attributed negative intentions and endorsed more punishment in the story with the counter-stereotypic toy than in the story with the stereotype consistent toy, indicating that stereotypes were impacting the children's decisions concerning intentionality. Additionally, across scenarios, older children as well as children able to pass the false belief theory of mind task, endorsed less punishment and indicated less negative intentions than their counterparts, demonstrating that as children get older and more cognitively advanced they are better able to see the ambiguity of a morally relevant scenario, despite gender stereotypes, in order to attribute less negative intentions. Furthermore, children who were aware of gender stereotypes and children who were tolerant of others playing with any toy regardless of the associated gender stereotype also endorsed less punishment and indicated less negative intentions than their counterparts.

The present study therefore shows how children may erroneously focus on stereotypic knowledge when making attributions of intentionality. This is important as over-attributing negative intentions can lead to peer rejection and exclusion. Understanding when and how contextual variables such as gender stereotypes as well as when and how having a false belief theory of mind impacts attributions of intentions is critical to understanding the ontogeny and development of moral reasoning.