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Faculty & Research

Paul L. Harris

Victor S. Thomas Professor of Education

Paul L. Harris

Degree:  D.Phil., Oxford University, (1971)
Email:  [javascript protected email address]
Phone:  617.496.1511
Fax:  617.496.3963
Personal Site:   Link to Site
Vitae/CV:   Paul L. Harris.pdf
Office:  Larsen 503A
Office Hours Contact:  Email the Faculty Member
Faculty Assistant:  Joelle Mottola


Paul Harris is interested in the early development of cognition, emotion, and imagination. His most recent book, Trusting What You're Told: How Children Learn from Others, was published by Harvard University Press in May 2012. This book discusses how far children rely on their own firsthand observation or alternatively trust what other people tell them — especially when they confront a domain of knowledge in which firsthand observation is difficult. For example, many aspects of history, science, and religion concern events that children cannot easily observe for themselves. How far do children believe what they are told about these domains? When and how do they become aware of the conflicting claims made by science as compared with religion?

Click here to see a full list of Paul Harris' courses.

Areas of Expertise

Association for Psychological Science: Mentor Award in Psychology,(2017)

American Psychological Association: Mentor Award in Developmental Psychology,(2015)

President-Elect of the Cognitive Development Society (CDS),(2015)

American Psychological Association: Eleanor Maccoby Book Award.,(2014)

Cognitive Development Society Book award,(2013)

Morningstar Teaching Award, Harvard Graduate School of Education,(2010)

William Thierry Preyer Award: European Society for Developmental Psychology,(2009)

Guggenheim Fellowship, John Simon Gugenheim Memorial Foundation,(2005)

Emeritus Fellow, St John's College (Oxford),(2001)

Research Readership, British Academy,(2000)

Elected Fellow, British Academy,(1998)

Fellow, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences,(1992)

Sponsored Projects


From reality to representation: Exploring the role of anxiety as a moderator in the development of beliefs about supernatural powers (2019-2021)
John Templeton Foundation / Trustees of Boston University

Research with adults has shown that cues that trigger existential anxiety, especially with respect to human mortality, are liable to strengthen feelings of proximity and connection to God. However, there has been little investigation of whether other more secular types of anxiety-inducing cues can have a similar effect. In addition, there has been little investigation of whether such anxiety-inducing cues are effective only with adults or whether they have a similar impact on children. This proposal aims to study each of these two dimensions. More specifically, both adults and children will be presented with reminders of mortality as well as reminders of anxiety-inducing secular threats (notably migration and economic insecurity). As a developmental psychologist with expertise in childrenÂ’s emotional development, as well as their ideas about God and the afterlife, Dr. Harris will make contributions in Year 1 to the detailed design of the proposed studies. In Year 2, he will contribute to the interpretation and write-up of the findings.


Children's conceptualization of the invisible and the impossible (2016-2019)
John Templeton Foundation

One of the most critical developmental achievements is the acquisition of ethics, generosity, and prosocial behavior. To this end, an extensive body of work has now revealed the early emergence of these behaviors in young children. Little is known, however, about exactly how such generous behavior is learned, and -- more crucially – what benefits generosity may offer to other aspects of young children’s development. We propose a series of five experimental studies aimed at answering these questions, addressing two issues: (1) the cognitive prerequisites for generous behavior, and (2) the cognitive and educational benefits of behaving generously. Because we hope to study both the learning and early emergence of generosity, we target the preschool age as our population of interest. Five experimental studies are proposed: The first set of studies (1-3) in this proposal test the impact of two types of cognition on children’s generosity: numerical cognition and counterfactual reasoning. The second set of studies (4-5) look at how, in turn, generosity affects learning outcomes in the domain of mathematical cognition.Concrete outputs will include at least 7-8 empirical journal publications disseminating the results of this research to scientific audiences in the fields of cognitive and developmental psychology, and 1-2 theoretical review articles communicating the findings to a broader audience within psychology and philosophy. Moreover, we will disseminate findings on generosity through creating a bi-annual newsletter summarizing our main findings to participating preschool practitioners, parents, and educators. Outcomes include bridging the fields of social and cognitive development, training a new community of scholars in conducting empirical research on early-developing generosity, and connecting scientific audiences with parents, educators, and practitioners. This research aims to uncover how to best foster generosity in early childhood.

Ronfard, S. & Harris, P.L. (in press). Children's decision to transmit information is guided by their evaluation of the nature of that information. Review of Philosophy and Psychology

Tang, Y., Harris, P. L., Pons, F., Zou, H., Zhang, W. & Xu, Q. (in press). The understanding of emotion among young Chinese children. International Journal of Behavioral Development

Tang, Y., Harris, P. L., Zou, H., & Xu, Q. (in press). The impact of emotional expressions on childrenÂ’s trust judgments. Cognition and Emotion

Bascandziev, I. & Harris, P.L. (in press). Can children benefit from thought experiments? In A. Levy & P. Godfrey-Smith (Eds.). The Scientific Imagination: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. New York: Oxford University Press

Harris, P.L. (in press). Affective social learning: from biology to culture. In D. Dukes and F. Clément (Eds.), Foundations of Affective Social Learning: Conceptualising the transmission of social value. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Harris, P.L. (in press). Infants want input. To appear in V. Grover, P. Uccelli, M.L. Rowe, & E. Lieven (Eds). Learning through language: Towards an educationally informed theory of language learning. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press

Chernyak, N., Harris, P.L. & Cordes, S. (in press). Explaining early moral hypocrisy: Numerical cognition promotes equal sharing behavior in preschool-aged children. Developmental Science

Harris, P.L. & Tang, Y. (in press). Peering into the opaque mind. European Journal of Developmental Psychology

Kory Westlund, J.M., Dickens, L., Jeonga, S., Harris, P.L., DeSteno, D, & Breazeal, C.L. (in press). Children use non-verbal cues to learn new words from robots as well as people. International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction

Einav, S., Rydland, V., Grøver, V., Robinson, E., & Harris, P.L. (in press). Children’s trust in print: What is the impact of late exposure to reading instruction? Infant and Child Development

Clegg, J. M., Cui, Y. K., Harris, P. L., & Corriveau, K. H.(in press). God, germs, and evolution: Belief in unobservable religious and scientific entities in the U.S. and China. Integrative Psychological & Behavioral Science

Davoodi, T., Sianaki, M. J., Abedi, F., Payir, A., Cui, K. Y., Harris, P. L., & Corriveau, K. H. (in press). Beliefs about religious and scientific entities among parents and children in Iran. Social Psychological and Personality Science

Hussar, K. M. & Harris, P.L. (2018). Vegetarian and non-vegetarian childrenÂ’s judgments of harm to animals and humans. Ecopsychology, 10, 36-43

Ronfard, S., Chen, E. E., & Harris, P. L. (2018). The emergence of the empirical stance: ChildrenÂ’s testing of counterintuitive claims. Developmental Psychology, 54, 482-493

Harris, P.L., Koenig, M. A., Corriveau, K. H., & Jaswal, V.K. (2018). Cognitive foundations of learning from testimony. Annual Review of Psychology, 69, 251-273

Harris, P.L. (2018). Revisiting privileged access. In. J. Proust & M. Fortier, Eds., Metacognitive diversity: an interdisciplinary approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Payir, A., Davoodi, T., Sianaki, M.J., Harris, P.L. & Corriveau, E. (2018). Coexisting religious and scientific beliefs among Iranian parents. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 24, 240-244

Harris, P.L. (2018). ChildrenÂ’s understanding of death: From biology to religion. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B

Harris, P.L., Ronfard, S. & Bartz, D. (2017). Young childrenÂ’s developing conception of knowledge and ignorance: Work in progress. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 14, 221-232

Hoicka, E., Butcher, J., Malla, F., & Harris, P. L. (2017). Humor and preschoolers' trust: Sensitivity to changing intentions. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 154, 113-130

Harris, P.L., Yang, B. & Cui, Y. (2017). “I don’t know”: Children’s early talk about knowledge. Mind and Language, 32, 283-307

Smith, C. E., Noh, J.Y., Rizzo, M.T. & Harris, P.L. (2017). When and why parents prompt their children to apologize: The roles of transgression type and parenting style. Journal of Family Studies. 23, 38-61

Harris, P.L., Bartz, D.T., & Rowe, M. L. (2017). Young children communicate their ignorance and ask questions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114, 7884-7891

Watson-Jones, R. E., Busch, J. T. A., Harris, P. L., & Legare, C. H. (2017). Does the body survive death? Cultural variation in beliefs about life everlasting. Cognitive Science, 41, 455–476

Ronfard, S., Lane, J.D., Wang, M. & Harris, P.L. (2017). The impact of counter-perceptual testimony on children's categorization after a delay. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 163, 151-158

Harris, P.L. (2017). Tell, ask, repair: Early responding to discordant reality. Motivation Science, 3, 275-286

Lucas, A.J., Burdett, E. R. R., Burgess, V., Wood, L., McGuigan,N., Harris, P. L. & Whiten, A. (2017). The development of selective copying: Children's learning from an expert versus their mother. Child Development, 88, 2026-2042

Harris, P. L. (2017). Emotion, imagination and the worldÂ’s furniture. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 14, 672-683

Kory Westlund, J. M., Jeong, S., Park, H. W., Ronfard, S., Adhikari, A., Harris, P. L., DeSteno, D. & Breazeal, D. (2017). Flat versus expressive storytelling: young childrenÂ’s learning and retention of a social robotÂ’s narrative. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11

Galindo, J.H. & Harris, P.L. (2017). Mother knows best? How children weigh their first-hand memories against their mothersÂ’ reports. Cognitive Development, 44, 69-84

Davoodi, T., Corriveau, K, H., & Harris, P.L. (2016). Distinguishing between realistic and fantastical figures in Iran. Developmental Psychology, 52, 221-231

Lane, J. D., Ronfard, S. L., Francioli, S. P., & Harris, P.L. (2016). ChildrenÂ’s imagination and belief: Prone to flights of fancy or grounded in reality? Cognition, 152, 127-140

Bascandziev, I., Powell, L., Harris, P.L. & Carey, S. (2016). A role for executive functions in explanatory understanding of the physical world Cognitive Development, 39, 71-85

Breazeal, C., Harris, P.L., DeSteno, D., Kory Westlund, J. M., Dickens, D., & Jeong, S. (2016). Young children treat robots as informant. Topics in Cognitive Science, 8, 481–491

Legare, C. H. & Harris, P.L. (2016). The ontogeny of cultural learning. Child Development, 87, 633-42

Hofmann, S. G., Doan, S., Sprung, M., Wilson, A., Ebesutani, C., Andrews, L., Curtiss, J. & Harris, P.L. (2016). Training children's theory-of-mind: A meta-analysis of controlled studies. Cognition, 150, 200-212

Harris, P. L., de Rosnay, M., & Pons, F. (2016). Understanding emotion. In & L. Feldman Barrett, M. Lewis & J. Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (4th edition), pp. 293-306. New York: Guilford Press

Chen. E.E., Corriveau, K. H. & Harris, P.L. (2016). Person perception in young children across two cultures. Journal of Cognition and Development, 17, 447-467

Bascandziev, I & Harris, P.L. (2016). The beautiful and the accurate: are childrenÂ’s selective trust decisions biased? Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 152, 92-105

Chernyak, N., Sandham, B., Harris, P.L. & Cordes, S. (2016). Numerical cognition explains agerelated changes in third-party fairness. Developmental Psychology, 52, 1555-1562

Ganea, P. A., Fitch, A., Harris, P.L. & Kaldy, Z. (2016). 16-month-olds can use language to update their expectations about the visual world. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 51, 65-76

Harris, P.L. (2016). Missing persons. In J. Dodd (Ed.), Art, mind, and narrative: Themes from the work of Peter Goldie. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Ronfard, S., Was, A. & Harris, P.L. (2015). Children teach methods they could not discover for themselves. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 142, 107-117

Morgan, T.J.H. & Harris, P.L. (2015). James Mark Baldwin and contemporary theories of culture and evolution. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 12, 666-678

Corriveau, K. H., Kipling, R., Ronfard, S., Biarnes, M. C., Jeye, B. M., & Harris, P. L. (2015). Living Laboratory® - A mutual professional development model for museum-based research partnerships. In D. Sobel & J. Jipson (Eds.), Relating research and practice: Cognitive development in museum settings. New York: Psychology Press

Sprung, M., Münch, H.M., Harris, P.L., Ebesutani, C., & Hofman, S. (2015). Children's emotion understanding: A meta-analysis of training studies. Developmental Review, 37, 41-65

Harris, P.L. (2015) Les enfants, croient-ils tout ce qu'on leur dit? LEssentiel: Cerveau & Psycho, 20, 8-13

Lane, J.D. & Harris, P.L. (2015) The role of intuition and informants' expertise in children's epistemic trust. Child Development, 86, 919-926

Harris, P.L. (2015) Children make good anthropologists. Social Anthropology, 23, 211-212

Rakoczy, H., Ehrling, C., Harris, P.L., & Schultze, T. (2015) Young children heed advice selectively. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology,138, 71-87

Ronfard, S. & Harris, P.L. (2015) The active role played by human learners is key to understanding the efficacy of teaching in humans. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 38

Breazeal, C., Harris, P.L., DeSteno, D., Kory, J., Dickens, D., & Jeong, S. (2015) Young children treat robots as informant. Topics in Cognitive Science

Bernard, S., Harris, P.L., Terrier, N., & Clement, F. (2015) Children weigh number of informants and perceptual uncertainty when identifying objects. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology

Harris, P.L., de Rosnay, M., & Pons, F. (2015) Understanding emotion. In M. Lewis, J. Haviland-Jones, & L. Feldman Barrett (Eds.) Handbook of Emotions (4th Edition) Guilford Press

Corriveau, K.H., Kipling, R., Ronfard, S., Biarnes, M.C., Jeye, B.M., & Harris, P.L. (2015) Living Laboratory - A mutual professional development model for museum-based research partnerships. In D. Sobel & J. Jipson (Eds.) Cognitive Development in Museum Settings: Relating Research and Practice. New York: Psychology Press

Sprung, M., Munch, H.M., Harris, P.L., Ebesutani, C., & Hoffman, S. (2015) Children's emotion understanding: A meta-analysis of training studies. Developmental Review

Harris, P.L. (2015) Missing persons. In J. Dodd (Ed.) Art, Mind and Narrative: Themes from the Work of Peter Goldie. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Harris, P.L. (2015) What children learn from questioning. Educational Leadership

Chen, E.E., Corriveau, K.H. & Harris, P.L. (2015) Person perception in young children across two cultures. Journal of Cognition and Development

Corriveau, K.H., Chen, E.E. & Harris, P.L. (2015) Judgments about fact and fiction by children from religious and non-religious backgrounds. Cognitive Science

Corriveau, K.H. & Harris, P.L. (2015) Children's developing realization that some stories are true: Links to the understanding of beliefs and signs. Cognitive Development

Morgan, T.J.H., Lanand, K.N. & Harris, P.L. (2015) The development of adaptive conformity in young children: Effects of Uncertainty and consensus. Developmental Science. 18, 511-212


British Academy,(1998-present)

Elected as foreign member of The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters,(2006-present)

Member, Scientific Advisory Board, Max-Planck-Institut fur evolutionare Anthropologie (Leipzig),(2001-2006)

Editorial Board, Child Development,(2000-2001)

Editorial Board, Human Development,(1995-2001)

Editor, British Journal of Developmental Psychology,(1994-1997)

American Academy of Arts and Sciences,(2015-)

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