Katherine McAuliffe

Boston College

Research Focus

Katherine McAuliffe’s work seeks to understand the forces that shape human social behavior and cognition across societies by studying the developmental foundations of cooperative behavior. She uses an interdisciplinary approach to address a range of questions. How do cooperative behaviors develop in childhood and to what extent does their development vary across different societies? What are the social learning mechanisms that allow children to adopt the rules that govern social behavior across diverse societies? Central to her work is a commitment to studying child development across cultural contexts to better understand the sources of diversity in human behavior and cognition.

My plans for the fellowship period

During my fellowship, I will focus on individual variation in children’s social learning and cooperative behaviors, asking how we can harness individual differences in cooperation to promote cooperative choices in others. Specifically, I will test the proposals that children vary markedly in their cooperative behavior, that exceptionally cooperative peers can serve as role models for others, and that we can therefore capitalize on inter-individual variation in cooperative behavior to create more supportive learning environments which, in turn, help young learners thrive.

My research will use a combination of existing data sets and new developmental data collected across diverse cultural contexts to explore inter-individual variation in children’s cooperative behaviors, with a focus on fairness, honesty, and trustworthiness. Next, I will examine the role of peers as potentially key drivers of cooperative behavior, ultimately seeking to understand the features of peer interactions that promote the transmission of cooperative choices. Finally, I plan to leverage insights from this project to gain actionable understanding of how to design learning environments that capitalize on the influence of peer role models. This project will help develop methods for harnessing individual strengths to promote success in others.

How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?

Foundational to my planned fellowship work is the belief that children across societies thrive in learning environments that promote cooperation. However, behaviors that contribute to these environments are sometimes difficult to encourage because they are often personally costly: why should I be fair when I can get more by being selfish? Why should I be honest when I can benefit from dishonesty?

My project will contribute to positive change for children and youth by harnessing understanding of individual variation in cooperation as a force for good. The findings will aid in the development of tools to help teachers identify exceptionally cooperative children. These tools will be an asset in the classroom, helping foster cooperative relationships and supportive environments. This work will be conducted with children in the USA and Uganda. Ultimately, I will expand this project by leveraging findings from studies conducted across these two countries to help design environments that encourage children to be cooperative across a wide range of cultural contexts.

More broadly, this project will mark a key step in translating work on children’s social learning and cooperative behavior to real-world applications that will help improve learning outcomes for students across different societies.