Understanding Emotion

In the 1980s, my research focused on children’s understanding of emotion. Many of the findings were surveyed in my book Children and Emotion, published in 1989. This body of research joined the larger stream of studies on the child’s theory of mind. Currently, in collaboration with Francisco Pons and Marc de Rosnay, I investigate the marked individual differences among children in their understanding of emotion and in the contribution that family conversation makes to their understanding.

Pretend Play and Imagination    

In the 1990s, I began to do research on the development of pretence and imagination. I tried to show that the child’s imagination plays a critical role in cognitive development. It feeds the child’s ability to reason, to make moral and causal judgments, and to see the world from various perspectives. This essentially positive role of the imagination was set out in my book The Work of the Imagination, published in 2000.

Trust in Testimony

Since 2000, I have been trying to work out the implications for cognition and epistemology of the fact that much of what children believe and learn is based not on direct observation, but on what others tell them. Using their imagination, children construct a mental representation of what they are told and think through its implications. This emphasis on what children learn via testimony runs counter to the emphasis in European developmental psychology—by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jean Piaget among others—on the vital role of children’s own firsthand observations.

I currently work on two central questions concerning testimony. First, how do children use their imagination to make sense of various historical, scientific, and religious claims about events that they have not, and cannot, observe for themselves? Second, why do children believe some informants more than others? Many of my recent experimental and theoretical papers have broached various aspects of these two themes. A book synthesizing recent findings, Trusting what You’re Told: How Children Learn from Others, was published in 2012.