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Children Want to Reprimand Antisocial People

S u m m a r y :
Children as young as six year olds feel the need to punish antisocial behaviour, and they want to watch the retribution being meted out, suggests a new study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

Humans live in social groups, and this requires for certain rules and principles to be established to bring about harmony. Building communities will require cooperation from everyone, and those who are not willing to cooperate will be punished. Such is human behaviour. The new research is an attempt to better understand its origin, and looks into how 6-year-old kids behave and respond towards uncooperative individuals.

The researchers explain that our normal reaction is sympathy, accompanied with the want to help others when we see them suffering. However, when someone has behaved in an antisocial manner, we tend to be unsympathetic to their hurt; we perceive his pain as just punishment, and a deterrent to misbehaviour, as suggests previous research. But, when do we start developing this behaviour? The team, investigators from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS), and the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI EVA), sought to identify the age at which we are motivated to watch a punishment we think is deserved by the perpetrator.

The scientists used a puppet theatre where two characters were made to behave differently: one was friendly, returning the favourite toy of the children to them, while the other was uncooperative, keeping the toy from the kids. There was another puppet meant to punish, and pretend to hit the other two puppets with a stick. The children were made to watch the show, and they were given the choice whether to watch the hits by paying with a coin or to exchange the coins for stickers.

The kids, mostly, refused to watch the friendly puppet get punished. On the other hand, they preferred to spend their coins to witness the punishment for the uncooperative puppet instead of having stickers. The findings also show that the children were pleased at seeing the latter suffer; this was concluded from their expressions. This applies to the 6-year-old children, and this behaviour was not seen for the 4- and 5-year-olds.

First author Natacha Mendes explains that their results demonstrate that the 6-year-olds want to “avenge antisocial behaviour and that they feel an urge to watch it.” She describes the behaviour as an essential trait to live in community. Another first author of the study, Nikolaus Steinbeis, adds that the kids display eagerness to watch how uncooperative individuals are punished.


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