What is it about?

We often have to face hard choices between fulfilling immediate desires (e.g., eating chocolate) or pursuing important goals (e.g., eating healthy). We examined children's expectations of individuals' behaviors in these goal pursuit situations. Across three studies, we found that 4-year-old children predicted people would fulfill immediate desires, but age 7 children expect people would forgo immediate desires to pursue more important goals.

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Why is it important?

Our findings show an important age-related change in children's expectations of goal-pursuit behaviors. These findings suggest that children may initially view immediate desires as strong forces in governing people's behaviors, but overtime they gradually realize the motivating power of goals. The findings may have implications for children's actual goal-pursuit and self-control behaviors. It is possible that as children gain better insights into the necessity and possibility for people to act against immediate desires to pursue goals, they may be more prepared to give their own answers to the hard choices in life: to save the world or to savor it.


As Harry Frankfurt says, what makes human beings unique is our ability to form higher order desires-to will some desires to be effective but not others. I think goals serve a similar purpose to some extent , by motivating us to fulfill some desires but to give up others. Our studies reveal that children know the forces of immediate desires very early, but they do not appreciate the motivating power of goals until several years later. Perhaps as we grow up, we increasingly experience and realize our power to act against our own desires, which enables us to pursue important goals and sets us free from ourselves.

Fan Yang
Yale University

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This page is a summary of: When preferences are in the way: Children’s predictions of goal-directed behaviors., Developmental Psychology, June 2018, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/dev0000490.
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