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Monday, January 18, 2021

Children punish third parties to satisfy both consequentialist and retributive motives

Marshall, J., Yudkin, D.A. & Crockett, M.J. 
Nat Hum Behav (2020). 


Adults punish moral transgressions to satisfy both retributive motives (such as wanting antisocial others to receive their ‘just deserts’) and consequentialist motives (such as teaching transgressors that their behaviour is inappropriate). Here, we investigated whether retributive and consequentialist motives for punishment are present in children approximately between the ages of five and seven. In two preregistered studies (N = 251), children were given the opportunity to punish a transgressor at a cost to themselves. Punishment either exclusively satisfied retributive motives by only inflicting harm on the transgressor, or additionally satisfied consequentialist motives by teaching the transgressor a lesson. We found that children punished when doing so satisfied only retributive motives, and punished considerably more when doing so also satisfied consequentialist motives. Together, these findings provide evidence for the presence of both retributive and consequentialist motives in young children.


Overall, these two preregistered studies provide clear evidence for the presence of both consequentialist and retributive motives in young children, supporting the naive pluralism hypothesis. Our observations cohere with past research showing that children between the ages of five and seven are willing to engage in costly third-party punishment, and reveal the motives behind children’s punitive behaviour. Children reliably engaged in purely retributive punishment: they punished solely to make an antisocial other sad without any possibility of deterring future antisocial behaviour.  Children did not punish in the non-communicative condition out of a preference for locking iPads in boxes, shown by the fact that children punished less in the baseline control condition. Furthermore, non-communicative punishment could not be explained by erroneous beliefs that punishing would teach the transgressor a lesson.  This demonstrates that young children are not pure consequentialists. Rather, our data suggest that young children engaged in costly third-party punishment for purely retributive reasons.