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Thursday, September 3, 2020

Children’s evaluations of third-party responses to unfairness: Children prefer helping over punishment.

Lee, Y., & Warneken, F. (2020, June 13).


Third-party punishment of selfish individuals is an important mechanism to intervene against unfairness. However, there is another way in which third parties can intervene. Rather than focusing on the unfair individual, third parties can choose to help those who were treated unfairly by reducing inequality. Such third-party helping as an alternative to third-party punishment has received little attention in studies with children. Across four studies, we examined the evaluations of third-party punishment versus third-party helping in N = 322 5- to 9-year-old children. Study 1, 3 and 4 showed that when asked about the agents directly, children evaluated both helpers and punishers positively, but they preferred helpers over punishers overall. When asked about the type of intervention itself, children preferred helping over punishment, suggesting that their preference for the type of intervention corresponds to how children think about the agents performing these interventions. Study 2 showed that children’s preference for third-party helping is driven by distributive justice concerns and not a mere preference for giving or resource maximization as children consider which type of third-party intervention decreases inequality. Together, this series of studies demonstrate that children between 5 and 9 years of age develop a sophisticated understanding of punishment and helping as two adequate forms of intervention but also display a preference for third-party helping. We discuss how these findings and prior work with adults supports the hypothesis of developmental continuity, showing that a preference for helping over punishment is deeply rooted in ontogeny.

From the Discussion:

The current study contributes to the literature by moving beyond the focus on punishment alone and probing children’s thinking about punishment and helping side by side. Prior developmental research focused on comparing punishers with third parties such as onlookers who choose not to intervene after witnessing a transgression (e.g., Vaish et al., 2016) or givers who reward a transgressor(e.g., Hamlin et al., 2011), which might have led to inflating children’s preference for punishers. Instead, the current study compared punishment with helping, a valid and common form of third-party intervention. Additionally, our study assessed children’s evaluations of punishment intervention per se and revealed a subtle but meaningful difference in understanding punishers vs. punishment, which was especially remarkable in young children. With the use of various measures and comparisons, the current study provided a more comprehensive understanding of the development of third-party punishment in children