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Thursday, February 3, 2022

Neural computations in children’s third-party interventions are modulated by their parents’ moral values

Kim, M., Decety, J., Wu, L. et al.
npj Sci. Learn. 6, 38 (2021). 


One means by which humans maintain social cooperation is through intervention in third-party transgressions, a behaviour observable from the early years of development. While it has been argued that pre-school age children’s intervention behaviour is driven by normative understandings, there is scepticism regarding this claim. There is also little consensus regarding the underlying mechanisms and motives that initially drive intervention behaviours in pre-school children. To elucidate the neural computations of moral norm violation associated with young children’s intervention into third-party transgression, forty-seven preschoolers (average age 53.92 months) participated in a study comprising of electroencephalographic (EEG) measurements, a live interaction experiment, and a parent survey about moral values. This study provides data indicating that early implicit evaluations, rather than late deliberative processes, are implicated in a child’s spontaneous intervention into third-party harm. Moreover, our findings suggest that parents’ values about justice influence their children’s early neural responses to third-party harm and their overt costly intervention behaviour.

From the Discussion

Our study further provides evidence that children, as young as 3 years of age, can enact costly third-party intervention by protesting and reporting. Previous research has shown that young children from age 3 enact third-party punishment to transgressors shown in video or puppets9,10. In the present study, in the context of real-life transgression experiment, even the youngest participant (41 months old) engaged in costly intervention, by hinting disapproval to the adult transgressor (why are you doing that?) and subsequently reporting the damage when being prompted. During the experiment, confounding factors such as a sense of ‘responsibility’, were avoided by keeping the person playing the ‘research assistant’ role out of the room when the transgression occurred. Furthermore, when leaving the room, the ‘research assistant’ did not assign the children any special role to police or monitor the actions of the ‘visitor’ (who would transgress). Moreover, the transgressor was not an acquaintance of the child, and the book was said to belong to a university (not a child’s school nor researchers), hence giving little sense of in-group/out-group membership11,60. Also, the participating children would likely attribute ‘power’ and ‘authority’ to the visitor/transgressor, as an adult26. Nevertheless, in the real-life experimental context, 34.8% of children explicitly protested to the adult wrong-doer.


It should be emphasized that parent’s cognitive empathy was not implicated in the child’s neural computations of moral norms or their spontaneous intervention behaviour. However, parents’ cognitive empathy had a positive correlation with a child’s effortful control and their subsequent report behaviour. This distinct contribution made by two different dispositions (cognitive empathy and justice sensitivity) suggests that parenting strategies necessary to enhance a child’s moral development require both aspects: perspective-taking and understanding of moral values.