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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

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.

Collaborative Research: Social Robots as Mechanisms for Language Instruction, Interaction, and Evaluation in Pre-School Children (2011-2016)
National Science Foundation

This is a collaborative proposal involving three PIs: Paul Harris (Professor of Education, HGSE), Cythia Breazal (Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences MIT) and David DeSteno (Associate Professor of Psychology, Northeastern University). Recent developments in robotics at MIT (and elsewhere) make it possible to present young children with robots that respond in a quasi-human, contingent fashion to them. To the extent that young children willingly engage with such robots, treating them as responsive interlocutors and informants, it is feasible to ask whether children will be willing to learn from them. The current proposal is deigned to answer this basic question. The work will involve three Phases. In Phase 1, iterative changes to the robot's non-verbal repertoire will be made so as to identify those characteristics that make the robot attractive and worthy of sustained interaction by young children. In Phase 2, we will ask how well the ¿winning¿ robot in Phase 1 compares with a human speaker as a source for the rapid learning of new vocabulary. In Phase 3, we will extend this comparison by asking whether the ¿winning robot¿ is as effective as a human speaker in signaling the meaning of new vocabulary items via (i) non-verbal indices of attention to a given object and (ii) non-verbal indices of goal satisfaction. In Phase 4, we will ask whether the results obtained in Phase 3 can be replicated when the robot operator uses web-based connections, to communicate through a robot that interacts with the child when they both are in an environment (e.g. the child¿s home or another preschool) that is remote from the operator. Finally, in Phase 5, we will examine the impact of variations in the robot’s verbal repertoire that are likely to make it more or less trusted as an informant by children from particular language backgrounds. The role of Paul Harris will be to help to design, analyze and write-up the experiments connected with each phase of the project. Children aged 3-4 years will be included in each phase.

Creating Communities of Learners for Informal Cognitive Science Education (2011-2016)
National Science Foundation

The principal investigator, Paul Harris, supervises the participation of an HGSE doctoral student in the project Creating Communities of Learners for Informal Cognitive Science Education. Hitherto, several doctoral students have been given permission to recruit and test children at the Museum of Science. Funding has been obtained from NSF to support a stable cohort of such students whose duties involve the training of a new generation of graduate researchers to work in the museum; the presentation of information on ongoing research to museum educators and interested parents; the tracking of participation by children and families in such research initiatives.

Ritual, Community and Conflict (2011-2016)
Economic and Social Research Council

Paul Harris will collaborate with two other co-investigators, Professor Harvey Whitehouse, an anthropologist at Oxford University and Professor Cristine Legare a developmental psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin to investigate children's understanding of, and participation in, ritualistic behavior. Following up recent findings on the development of imitation in early childhood, we will examine the cues that children use to selectively imitate (i.e. copy or mimic the entire act) versus emulate (i.e. reproduce the effect or perceived intention) ritualized action sequences. We will also examine the underlying cognitive prerequisites and learning processes that can lead children to regard a ritual as mandatory and unchangeable. Paul Harris will contribute in three ways to the project. First, as a developmental psychologist with a long experience of experimental work, he will collaborate in the design of experiments with young children that aim to analyze how they interpret and reproduce ritualized behaviors both those that they are already familiar with as well as novel rituals. Second, he will collaborate in the analysis and publication of those experiments in scholarly journals. Third, in the final period of the project, he will serve as a co-author (with Professors Whitehouse and Legare) of a book that reviews the key empirical findings from the project and assesses their implications. The book will be aimed at an interdisciplinary audience of anthropologists, psychologists and political scientists.

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,(forthcoming)

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,(forthcoming)

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,(forthcoming)

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

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,(forthcoming)

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,(forthcoming)

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,(forthcoming)

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,(forthcoming)

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

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,(forthcoming)

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,(forthcoming)

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,(forthcoming)

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

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

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

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,(2018)

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

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,(2018)

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,(2017)

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,(2017)

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

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

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,(2017)

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,(2017)

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

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,(2017)

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

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 children’s learning and retention of a social robot’s narrative. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11,(2017)

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,(2017)

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

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

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

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,(2016)

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,(2016)

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,(2016)

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,(2016)

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

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,(2016)

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,(2016)

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,(2016)

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

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

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,(2015)

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,(2015)

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

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,(2015)

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,(2015)

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

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

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,(2015)

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,(2015)

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,(2015)

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

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

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

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,(2015)

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,(2015)

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,(2015)

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,(2015)

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,(2015)

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

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,(2015)

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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