The moral of your babies’ story

#freshfromthelab. Dr Ben Kenward on how children develop a sense of right and wrong and how they learn to punish bad behaviours.


Ben Kenward is a senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes University. He has recently been studying children’s ability to make moral decisions. Specifically, how they identify right from wrong, and how they understand punishment. He has also designed some studies to investigate what motivates children to punish others. So, when and why do children punish other people? The first question we have to answer is, why do humans punish others? Well… researchers argue that people punish for a purpose, and that this can be motivated by a number of reasons. Generally, punishment can be described as a penalty (or cost) for an offence. Ben argues that punishment has evolved in society in order to stop antisocial behaviours from happening, in other words, it keeps our society stable by punishing those who violate laws and rules. Researchers have shown that punishment can happen for several reasons namely for deterrence and/or retribution. Behaviours do not have to be illegal in order for people to be punished for them. 'Social norms' are simply an expected ‘moral’ behaviour which most people in society understand they should follow without the need for explicit rules or laws.


For example, children’s expectations of playing norms might be violated if someone steals another child’s teddy bear, or if someone shares their toys out unequally. Although these behaviours are not breaking any legal or explicit rules, they are considered ‘antisocial’ and even very young children have demonstrated that they can understand this concept. A study at Yale University showed that babies as young as 3 months, have a preference for ‘helpful’ behaviours in puppets and can tell right from wrong. See this video for a summary of their study… So now we know that babies and children can understand right from wrong behaviours, and that they prefer socially helpful characters to those who perform antisocial behaviours, such as the rabbit stealing the ball in this video. But what about the reason children might have for punishing another person or when might this happen? Ben’s studies have looked at what motivates children to punish antisocial or unhelpful behaviours.


He used a study where 7-12-year-old children watched other people play a computer game called Minecraft and were told they were giving out a punishment to one of the players who had behaved unfairly in the game. The children were told before the game, that sometimes one of the players behaves badly towards another player. They were also told they would be asked to judge this person’s behaviour, and give them a penalty. For example, to take away points or to give the person a time out from the game. Ben wanted to see what was important to children’s motivation in punishing the naughty player. Before the children started the game, the researchers ‘primed’ the children, telling them either that they are punishing because of retribution reasons, ‘you should punish to get back at the badly behaved person’, or that they are punishing for deterrence, to ‘stop the person from doing it again’. (Priming is where people are presented with some information, with the idea that this may then influence their later decisions. For more information on how priming works click here. Or follow the link) Once the children had played the game, they were asked ‘would you remind me why we needed to have this justice system in the game?’ The researchers found that it was much easier for the children to repeat back deterrence reasons than retribution reasons for punishing the badly behaved player. Even when they were primed with the retribution reasons.

Ben has also found that children under the age of 5, do not punish and reward based on the moral or immoral behaviours of other people. He argues that punishment is a learned behaviour which develops throughout childhood. He says that children learn that they should discourage those who violate norms so that people live together harmoniously. They learn that there must be a negative impact for people performing antisocial behaviours, in order to stop them from behaving ‘badly’ again. This is what Ben argues initially motivates children to punish others in society, rather than reasons based on retribution or revenge.


Author: Ceri Peck

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