My research program combines the theories and methods of social psychology with those of cognitive development to investigate the emergence and development of social cognition in young children. More specifically, my work focuses on three areas: (1) prosocial behavior, (2) social group attitudes, and (3) ownership/intellectual property. Across these three distinct lines of work, my students and I investigate questions about the processes central to our lives as human beings. We study some of the most positive behaviors humans engage in—helping others, collaborating on the development of ideas, and being generous—while simultaneously investigating some of the more pervasive negative behaviors observed in humans—racism, discrimination, and idea theft. Across these three topics we try to understand whether common motivations, such as reputation-seeking or a desire for affiliation and comfort, underlie these diverse behaviors. A hallmark of our approach is the adoption of a wide range of methods—those traditionally used in cognitive development, social development, behavioral economics, comparative cognition, and adult social cognition—in combination with theoretical advances from these fields, to draw conclusions about how it is that young, developing humans come to think about and interact with the world around them.
Prosocial Behavior: At the moment, my lab is investigating how context influences prosocial behaviors such as generosity, helping, and concerns with fairness. We aim to understand not only when various behaviors emerge or change by why these behaviors exist in the first place.
Social Group Attitudes: Most of our current work on social group attitudes focuses on the role that perceptions of social status play in thinking about racial groups. We conduct this research both in the United States and South Africa. An additional recent interest involves using classic social psychology methods (e.g., priming) to promote more positive intergroup interactions.
Intellectual Property: Our final current line of work involves understanding how children think about ideas and intellectual property. We are interested in how reasoning about idea ownership might differ from or be similar to reasoning about property ownership, whether acknowledgment plays a critical role in concerns with intellectual property theft, and how children mentally represent ideas.
Newheiser, A., & Olson, K. R. (in press). Attitudes toward social status predict White and Black children’s implicit intergroup bias. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Olson, K. R., Shutts, K., Kinzler, K. D., & Weisman, K. G. (in press). Children associate racial groups with social class: Evidence from South Africa. Child Development.
Shaw, A., & Olson, K. R. (in press). Children discard a resource to avoid inequity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
Olson, K. R. & Shaw, A. (2011). “No fair, Copycat!”: What children’s response to plagiarism tells us about their understanding of ideas. Developmental Science, 14, 431-439.
Olson, K. R., & Spelke, E. S. (2008). Foundations of cooperation in preschool children. Cognition, 108, 222-231.