When You Shouldn't Do What You Want to Do: Young Children's Understanding of Desires, Rules, and Emotions


  • This research was supported in part by a National Research Service Award from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to the author as well as by start-up research funds from the University of California, Davis. I am grateful to Amie Nastale, Kimberly Brar, and Sheerin Karimian for assistance in coding, data entry, and analyses. I also thank the children, parents, and teachers from the Children's Center, the Center for Children with Working Families, Merryhill School, Montessori Country Day, and Russell Park Child Development Center for participating in this research. A special thanks to my young daughter, Kaitlyn, for helping me devise child-relevant scenarios. Finally, I thank Susan Gelman, Ross Thompson, and Henry Wellman for comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript. Portions of this research were presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, April 2003, in Tampa, Florida.

concerning this article should be addressed to Kristin H. Lagattuta, Department of Psychology, University of California, 1 Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616. Electronic mail may be sent to khlaga@ucdavis.edu.


This research investigated 4- through 7-year-olds' and adults' (n=64) concepts about the emotional consequences of desire fulfillment versus desire inhibition in situations where people's desires conflict with prohibitive rules. Results revealed developmental increases in attributing positive or mixed emotions to story characters that make willpower decisions and negative or mixed emotions to characters that transgress. These developmental changes in emotion predictions were accompanied by age-related differences in emotion explanations. Whereas 4- and 5-year-olds largely explained emotions in relation to the characters' goals, 7-year-olds and adults further explained how rules and future consequences influence emotions. Results are discussed in relation to connections among children's psychological, deontic, and future-oriented reasoning about emotions as well as the development of self-control.