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Study: Children Use Punishment To Hurt And Teach Lessons

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Psychologists know that adults dole out punishment both to hurt people and to teach them a lesson. New research from Yale University suggests that behavior might start before kindergarten.

Davis Dunavin, WSHU: Julia Marshall, who co-authored the paper as a graduate student at Yale and is now at Boston College, said the idea for the study came from the question.

Julia Marshall: We were really interested in whether children, like adults, want to punish others simply because they want them to feel bad, or whether they want to punish because they want the transgressor, the wrongdoer, to learn a lesson. So they could potentially reform their behavior, become a better person in the future, not do bad things.

DD: So tell me what you did here: you bring these kids in for the study, and then what happens?

JM: They were first introduced to a fun iPad game that they were able to play. And then we told them that another child had been in the lab earlier that day and that they had been drawing pictures with someone else. (Researchers showed the young subjects a video of the first child tearing up the second child’s crayon pictures...)

… And so that was a really mean thing to do. And then we told the participant that the mean kid was going to come back to the lab later today and that they were very excited to play with an iPad.

DD: Researchers asked the young subjects if they wanted to punish the mean kid by taking their iPad away when they got back. Those who did then had another choice to make: should they tell the mean kid it was because they tore up another kid’s artwork?

JM: That meant, if they choose that option, the transgressor would have the possibility to possibly learn or change their behavior.

DD: Why not adults? What was the idea behind using children for this?

JM: Adults are sort of, you know, by the time someone’s 20, 25 or older, they have specific philosophical, ethical commitments to how punishment ought to occur. They have a lot more experience with punishment than a 5-year-old does. We were really curious about how children, who have less experience with punishment as an institution, and punishment in their everyday lives, would make these decisions. And what we find is that children are interested in both retributive and consequentialist punishment, and that’s also true of adults. (Retributive means you’re just trying to hurt them; consequentialist means you want them to learn from it.)

So it seems like these motives are potentially stable across childhood, into adulthood … But it’s impossible to know that. Because 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds do have experience in the world. They have witnessed punishment. They may have been even punished themselves by the time they’re 4 or 5.

DD: Where do we go from here? Does this raise any interesting questions for future research?

JM: So I think it would be curious or interesting to see how these motives change or shape throughout adolescence as well. Some research that I’m doing myself is looking at how these motives might change or differ depending on your relationship to the transgressor. So say that transgressor is someone that you know like a close friend. Maybe you might be more interested in making sure your punishment is communicative and can help them reform their behavior. Whereas if it’s a stranger or someone that you don’t know at all, maybe you’re less educational or pedagogical in your punishment. Or if the transgressor is an outgroup member, someone that you don’t like, maybe the motives behind your punishment actually are really different.

Julia Marshall is a postdoctoral researcher at Boston College, formerly with Yale University.