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Children consider their own past actions before judging others

Boston College and the University of Queensland recently carried out a fascinating study probing into the moral judgement capabilities of children between the ages of four and nine. 

This compelling research, published in the journal Child Development, endeavored to understand whether children of this age range incorporate past choices when forming moral judgements of others.

The key finding of the study was that, by the age of six, children start to consider what individuals could have done differently when making judgements about their behavior, classifying it as nice or mean. Meanwhile, for four and five-year-olds, their moral judgements seemed to depend solely on the actual outcome.

Moral judgements of adults vs children

For adults, our moral judgement of past actions often involves thinking counterfactually about alternate courses of action. This process of reflection on potential past alternatives is integral to understanding and judging others’ behavior. For instance, we are likely to judge a person causing harm less harshly if we discover they had no other choice.

Shalini Gautam, a postdoctoral researcher at Boston College, underlines the implications of these results: “Our findings highlight how understanding the choices someone had is an essential feature of making mature and nuanced moral judgements. It shows that children become able to do this from the age of six. Children younger than six may not yet be incorporating the choices someone had available to them when judging their actions.”

How the studies were conducted

Two diverse studies were conducted involving 236 children, predominantly of white middle-class background, living in an Australian city. The children, ranging from four to nine years old, were recruited for these studies from a local museum.

The first study involved a storytelling experiment. Each child was presented with an iPad and was shown a training procedure featuring items in a cupboard falling into a character’s possession. 

The goal was to familiarize children with the items and the primary characters they would encounter in the main story. They were also introduced to a ‘nice-to-mean’ scale to rate the behavior of the characters.

The central narrative of this experiment revolved around four characters who each brought a snack to share on a friend’s birthday. Two characters had the choice to bring either a liked or disliked snack, while the other two had no choice. 

What the researchers learned

The results revealed that six-year-old children were swayed not only by the choice of snack but also by the alternative choice that the character could have made.

The second study took a slightly different approach, revolving around a “Lego Party.” The characters could either select between two items or only had a single item available. Key findings from this experiment corroborated the first study, showing an age-dependent increase in children’s consideration of choice when judging the characters.

This research raises intriguing questions about how counterfactual thinking impacts children’s more intricate moral judgements. 

“Understanding choices is not only an important part of moral judgements, but of understanding actions and outcomes in general,” said Gautam. 

“This research may provide the first direct evidence that children account for counterfactuals in their moral judgements. It may be useful for parents, teachers and other caregivers who want to consider how they can explain complicated moral judgements to young children.”

“Moreover, it opens up intriguing avenues for future research, such as finding ways to foster young children’s understanding of counterfactuals to help them grasp complex moral judgements.”

More about child development 

Understanding how children develop morals and attitudes is a fascinating and complex area of study within developmental psychology. This development happens in stages and is influenced by a range of factors including the child’s social environment, cultural context, and cognitive development. Here are some important points to consider:

The Pre-Conventional Stage

According to the well-known psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, children in their early years (usually until about the age of 9) are in what he calls the “pre-conventional” stage of moral development. At this stage, children think in terms of punishment and reward. Their concept of right and wrong is largely centered around avoiding punishment and obtaining rewards. They may also make decisions based on the principle of reciprocity, that is, the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” perspective.

The Conventional Stage

This stage generally starts around the age of 9 and lasts until early adulthood. At this point, children begin to develop a broader understanding of societal rules and expectations and consider these when making moral decisions. They begin to value the importance of being a good member of society, which often means doing what’s expected of them by others, such as parents, teachers, and peers.

The Post-Conventional Stage

Few people reach this stage, according to Kohlberg. Here, individuals understand that while rules and laws exist for the good of society, there may be circumstances where these rules can be questioned or broken for a higher moral cause.

Influence of Social Interactions

Peer interactions also play a significant role in moral development. Through these interactions, children learn to negotiate, compromise, and resolve conflicts, which helps them develop a sense of fairness and justice.

Role of Parents and Caregivers

Parents, caregivers, and teachers also have a major influence on a child’s moral development. They serve as role models and sources of moral guidance. They can help foster moral development by encouraging empathy, fairness, and a sense of responsibility in children.

Impact of Culture

Culture significantly influences what behaviors are considered morally acceptable. Children learn these cultural norms and moral values through observation, instruction, and the consequences of their actions within their cultural context.

Cognitive Development 

Cognitive development, as theorized by Jean Piaget, is intrinsically linked to moral development. As children’s brains mature and their thinking becomes more complex, so does their ability to understand ethical concepts such as justice, rights, and equality.

Remember, however, that these are general guidelines and each child’s development can vary greatly based on their unique circumstances. Morality is multifaceted and its development depends on an interplay of personal, social, and cognitive factors.


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