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Early Moral Cognition and Behavior

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Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01735

Means-Inference as a source of variability in early helping

  • 1Stanford University, United States

Humans, as compared to their primate relatives, readily act on behalf of others: we help, inform, share resources with, and provide emotional comfort for others. Although these prosocial behaviors emerge early in life, some types of prosocial behaviors seem to emerge earlier than others, and some tasks elicit more reliable helping than others. Here we discuss existing perspectives on the sources of variability in early prosocial behaviors with a particular focus on the variability within the domain of instrumental helping. We suggest that successful helping behavior not only requires an understanding of others' goals (goal-inference), but also the ability to figure out \emph{how} to help (means-inference). We review recent work that highlights two key factors that support means-inference: causal reasoning and sensitivity to the expected costs of actions. Once we begin to look closely at the process of deciding how to help someone, even a seemingly simple helping behavior is, in fact, a consequence of a sophisticated decision-making process; it involves reasoning about others (e.g., goals, actions, and beliefs), about the causal structure of the physical world, and about one's own ability to provide effective help. A finer-grained understanding of the role of these inferences may help explain the developmental trajectory of prosocial behaviors in early childhood. We discuss the promise of computational models that formalize this decision process and how this approach can provide additional insights into why humans show unparalleled propensity and flexibility in their ability to help others.

Keywords: Prosocial Behavior, instrumental helping, decision-making, causal reasoning, Cost-Benefit Analysis, cognitive development

Received: 26 Jun 2018; Accepted: 28 Aug 2018.

Edited by:

Jessica Sommerville, University of Washington, United States

Reviewed by:

Carolyn Palmquist, Amherst College, United States
Stuart I. Hammond, University of Ottawa, Canada  

Copyright: © 2018 Bridgers and Gweon. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Ms. Sophie Bridgers, Stanford University, Stanford, United States,