Scimex: German and UK scientists have found that three-year-olds, despite their reputation for being selfish and incapable of sharing, actually show a surprising level of concern for others and an intuitive sense of restorative justice. Among the findings in their study, they saw that young children prefer to return lost items to their rightful owners and that they will prevent a third party from taking what doesn't belong to them.
Toddlers have a reputation for being stubborn, selfish, and incapable
of sharing. But researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on
June 18 have found that children as young as three actually will show a
surprising level of concern for others and an intuitive sense of
Young children prefer to return lost items to
their rightful owners, the researchers' studies show. If for some
reason that isn't an option, young children will still prevent a third
party from taking what doesn't belong to them. What's more, both three-
and five-year-old children are just as likely to respond to the needs of
another individual--even when that individual is a puppet--as they are
to their own.
The findings in young children from Germany offer new insight into the nature of justice itself, the researchers say.
chief implication is that a concern for others--empathy, for
example--is a core component of a sense of justice," says Keith Jensen
of the University of Manchester. "This sense of justice based on harm to
victims is likely to be central to human prosociality as well as
punishment, both of which form the basis of uniquely human cooperation."
human society, cooperation is often encouraged by punishing
free-riders. However, earlier studies have shown that chimpanzees don't
punish cheaters unless they themselves have been harmed directly.
way to understand the roots of justice in human society is to study the
early emergence of the trait in young children. Studies have shown that
children are more likely to share with a puppet that helped another
individual than with one who behaved badly. They also prefer to see
punishment delivered to a doll that deserves it than one that doesn't.
By the age of six, children will pay a price to punish fictional and
real peers. Preschoolers can also be encouraged with threats of
punishment to behave more generously.
To find out what motivates a
sense of justice in young children, Katrin Riedl along with Jensen and
their colleagues gave three- and five-year-olds at the Max Planck
Institute in Leipzig, Germany the opportunity to take items away from a
puppet that had "taken" them from another. Those children were as likely
to intervene on behalf of a puppet "victim" as they were for
themselves. When given a range of options, three-year-olds preferred to
return an item than to remove it.
"It appears that a sense of justice centred on harm caused to victims emerges early in childhood," the researchers write.
findings highlight the value of third-party interventions for human
cooperation. They might also come in handy for parents and teachers of
"The take-home message is that preschool children
are sensitive to harm to others, and given a choice would rather restore
things to help the victim than punish the perpetrator," Jensen says.
"Rather than punish children for wrong-doings or discuss the
wrong-doings of others in punitive or perpetrator-focused ways, children
might better understand harm done to the victim and restoration as the