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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Children’s conceptions of agency and morality : making sense of the happy victimizer phenomenon Sokol, Bryan W.


This thesis explores a puzzling aspect of young children's reasoning about the emotional consequences associated with harming others - or what, in the moral development literature, has become known as the "happy victimizer phenomenon." Past research on this so-called "phenomenon" has consistently found a strong tendency among most 5-, but not 7-, year-olds to imagine that those who get what they want by victimizing others will experience only positive, or "happy," emotions. Despite an otherwise good showing on alternative measures of moral understanding, such young children regularly appear to leave sadness, guilt, or remorse out of the picture. The three studies reported here each provide converging evidence that this apparent "moral transition" in the early school years is, in fact, one facet of a broader re-structuring in children's evolving conceptions of human agency. Building on recent initiatives in the theories-of-mind literature, Study One explored the relations between children's understanding of the interpretive nature of the knowing process (i.e., an "interpretive theory of mind") and performance on both traditional measures of the happy victimizer phenomenon and alternative procedures designed to draw out the agentive dimensions of the standard assessment conditions. While a strong association between children's theory-of-mind scores and their level of emotion understanding was found in the traditional testing conditions, the alternative procedures demonstrated that children's emotion attributions were heavily influenced by how closely they attended to victimizers' actions. Study Two further examined these findings by more directly testing the relation between an interpretive understanding and children's reasoning about the motivational states that typically underlie others' actions. Using procedures designed to assess children's understanding of "deviant causal chains," Study Two found that an interpretive theory of mind placed important constraints on children's views about the differences between desires and intentions. Finally, Study Three worked to rule out potential reductionistic explanations of the present "agency account" by showing that children's success at reasoning simultaneously about two aspects of a stimulus event - a design feature shared by all the measures used in these studies - was a distinct, and far simpler ability, than the later-arriving agentive notions assessed in Studies One and Two.

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