Young children and adults associate social power with indifference to others’ needs

Brandon F. Terrizzi, Amanda M. Woodward, Jonathan S. Beier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


In hierarchical societies, what do we expect from people at the top? Early in life, children use horizontal relationships (e.g., affiliation) to predict selectivity in others’ prosocial behavior. But it is unknown whether children also view asymmetries in prosocial behavior as characteristic of vertical relationships (e.g., differences in social power). In two experiments, we investigated 4- to 7-year-old children's and adults’ (N = 192) intuitions about links among relative authority status, helpful action, and unhelpful inaction. In Experiment 1, participants at all ages viewed a character who chose not to help another person as holding a position of authority over them; participants also viewed this unhelpful character as being less nice than the person in need. However, no age group made consistent inferences about the relative authority of a helper and a helpee. In Experiment 2, children had mixed intuitions when separately predicting whether high- and low-authority characters would be helpful in the future. However, older children and adults consistently indicated that a subordinate would be more likely than an authority to help a third party. These findings establish that children's social theories include expectations for links between power and prosociality by at least the preschool years. Whereas some judgments in this domain are stable from 4 years of age onward, others emerge gradually. Whether consistent responses occurred early or only later in development, however, all measures converged on a single intuition: People more easily associate authority with indifference to others’ needs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number104867
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
StatePublished - Oct 2020
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank the Port Discovery Museum in Baltimore, MD for housing a significant portion of the data collection as well as the families and adult participants who have contributed to this research. This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors. The original materials and data accompanying this study are available at the Open Science Framework (

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Elsevier Inc.


  • Helping
  • Prosocial behavior
  • Social cognitive development
  • Social dominance
  • Social evaluation
  • Social status

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


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