Language shapes children’s attitudes: Consequences of internal, behavioral, and societal information in punitive and nonpunitive contexts

Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 151 (6):1233-1251 (2022)
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Research has probed the consequences of providing people with different types of information regarding why a person possesses a certain characteristic. However, this work has largely examined the consequences of different information subsets (e.g., information focusing on internal versus societal causes). Less work has compared several types of information within the same paradigm. Using the legal system as an example domain, we provided children (N=198 6- to 8-year-olds) with several types of information—including information highlighting internal moral character, internal biological factors, behavioral factors, and societal factors—about why a specific outcome (incarceration) might occur. We examined how such language shaped children’s attitudes. In Study 1, children reported the most positivity toward people who were incarcerated for societal reasons and the least positivity toward people who were incarcerated for their internal moral character; attitudes linked with behavioral information fell between these extremes. Studies 2a-2b suggested that Study 1’s effects could not be fully explained by participants drawing different about individuals in Study 1. Study 3 replicated Study 1’s results and showed that information linking incarceration with internal biological factors led to more positivity than information linking incarceration with internal moral character. Finally, Study 4 suggested that the patterns found in Studies 1 and 3 generalize to non-punitive contexts. Moreover, Study 4 found that the effects in Studies 1 and 3 emerged regardless of whether information was communicated via explanations or descriptions. These results demonstrate that how we express our beliefs about social phenomena shape the realities in which others live.

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