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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Young children show negative emotions after failing to help others

Gerdemann, S. C., Tippmann, J., et al (2022). 
PloS one, 17(4), e0266539.


Self-conscious emotions, such as guilt and shame, motivate the adherence to social norms, including to norms for prosociality. The relevance of an observing audience to the expression of negative self-conscious emotions remains poorly understood. Here, in two studies, we investigated the influence of being observed on 4-to 5-year-old children's (N = 161) emotional response after failing to help someone in need and after failing to complete their own goal. As an index of children's emotional response, we recorded the change in children's upper body posture using a motion depth sensor imaging camera. Failing to help others lowered children's upper body posture regardless of whether children were observed by an audience or not. Children's emotional response was similar when they failed to help and when they failed to complete their own goal. In Study 2, 5-year-olds showed a greater decrease in upper body posture than 4-year-olds. Our findings suggest that being observed is not a necessary condition for young children to express a negative self-conscious emotion after failing to help or after failing to complete their own goal. We conclude that 5-year-olds, more so that 4-year-olds, show negative emotions when they fail to adhere to social norms for prosociality.

General discussion

The current studies represent the first investigation of children’s emotional response to failing to help others using a method that automatically and objectively record changes in children’s body posture. Our studies show that young children’s emotional response is similarly negative when they fail to help or fail to achieve their own goal in both an observed and unobserved set-ting. Specifically, in both studies, children expressed a greater reduction in upper body posture after they failed to help (Trial 1) than during the resolution of the situation moments later (Trial 2). This result was corroborated by the emotion valence coding of Study 1. While observation or goal context did not influence this emotional response, we did find evidence in Study2 that 5-year-olds expressed a greater reduction in upper body posture after failing to help than 4-year-olds. Moreover, in Study 2, children expressed a predominantly shame-like negative emotion after failing to help, suggesting that self-evaluative processes were involved in children’s emotional response.

The influence of observation

Children expressed similarly negative emotions regardless of whether they were observed or unobserved during a failure to help, suggesting that the presence of an audience is not required for young children to express a negative self-conscious emotion. It is worth noting that children were made aware of the observer’s presence twice during the studies and were told that the observer would watch them today, which is comparable to previous studies of the influence of observation on children’s prosocial behavior. Our findings thus raise questions about the role of others’ evaluation or judgment of oneself in young children’s expression of self-conscious emotions. Some scholars have argued that young children’s expression of shame following achievement-related failures is the result of observing adults knowing (or having the impression) that children have performed poorly until children are school-aged.