Children Teaching Children A Lesson

Are children more willing to punish if the wrongdoer is ‘taught a lesson’?

This is the question Marshall et al (2020) set out to answer and the results are rather interesting.

In their article Children punish third parties to satisfy both consequentialist and retributive motives published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, they found that many children are willing to make personal sacrifices to punish wrongdoers and even more so if they believe punishment will teach the transgressor a lesson.

Marshall and her colleagues monitored the responses of 251 children between the ages of 4 and 7 who watched a video of a child tearing up another youngster’s art work.

The children were given a dilemma – they had to decide whether to punish the child by taking away their iPad.

Here’s the dilemma part – if they decided to punish the transgressor then they would have to make the personal sacrifice of having their own iPad locked away.

Children were divided into two groups: group one was told that if they chose “retributive” punishment, then the art destroyer  would lose use of their iPad but would not be told why. The second group was told if they punished the offender then they would be told why (for ripping up the drawing), in other words the “communicative” condition.

26% of children in group one decided to punish the guilty party even after being told they would lose use of their own iPad.

What about the second group? Well, interestingly they were 24% more likely to punish than the first group.

Molly Crockett says

The opportunity to teach a wrongdoer a lesson motivates children to punish over and above the desire to see them suffer for their actions.

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