In cooperative societies like our own, third-party punishment—the human tendency to punish transgressions against people other than ourselves—is a critical safeguard against free riders. "It's considered to be one of the things that holds together human societies," says the University of Manchester’s Keith Jensen. This desire for restorative justice occurs in children as young as three, according to a study published today in Current Biology. So, Jensen wondered, what motivates this behavior in young children?
To find out how children as young as three and five years old would respond to theft, loss, unfairness, and sharing scenarios, the researchers set up a child and two puppets—a "victim" and a "thief"—at a table. There was a key gimmick, though: Rigged up to the table were ropes, which the thief puppeteer could use to spin the table and steal toys or cookies from the children or the victim puppet.
"Young children seem to be very responsive to the distress that another individual might be feeling. This is called effective perspective taking."
In one study, the children could punish the thief by pulling the rope and spinning the stolen goods into a locked "cave." In another study, the children could spin the items back to their original owner. The same set-up was used to study the children’s reactions to loss and unfairness. In the former, the thief stole the goods and locked them in the cave immediately (akin to a waiter taking away your meal before you’ve finished eating). In the latter, the thief gave the stolen goods to a third puppet (akin to a waiter coming by before you’ve finished your meal and giving it to another diner).
"What surprised us is that children responded equally to the theft, unfairness, and loss conditions," Jensen says. "They treated all of them equivalent, whether they were affected or whether the puppet was affected." The children viewed a third-party violation with as much disdain as they did a personal one, and where adults might discriminate between outright theft, loss, or an unfair situation, the children punished them all equally. The children preferred restoration to punishment, and when they were able to restore stolen or lost items, they usually returned the hot items to the original owner, "even if the original owner was another puppet," Jensen says.
Taken together, the findings indicate that children’s reactions to third-party violations were more about responding to the needs of the "victim" than they were about punishing perpetrators.
"Young children seem to be very responsive to the distress that another individual might be feeling. This is called effective perspective taking," Jensen says. "This ability to show concern for others seems to be a very strong motivational force."
As adults, our sense of justice is based on learned rules and norms; we wield punishment as a deterrent and a form of revenge. But "in young children, it seems that we start with the pro-social aspect of [justice]," Jensen says, starting "with the concern we have for the individual who's harmed. Those other aspects of justice then become layered on top of that."
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