By the time a child is just 3 years old, he or she can already distinguish between good and evil and right and wrong. But that’s not all: children at that age are also able to punish bad behavior and encourage good behavior, even if they may suffer for it. That is the conclusion of an investigation that was done at the University of New York, directed by the psychologist Daniel Yudkin.
“Morality is about more than doing good oneself, it is also about encouraging good behavior in others,” says Yudkin. His study was recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology and also had contributions from other professors from the university including Marjorie Rhodes and Jay Van Bavel, who tried to examine the characteristic of trying to punish bad actors even at a personal cost. “This behavior, known as expensive third-party punishment, is interesting because it is believed to underlie people’s conception of justice,” explains Yudkin.“Specifically, it relates to justice because it involves people who make sure others are acting fairly.“
The researchers were particularly interested in studying children, since seeing how children think about punishment at an early stage can shed light on the underlying mental processes that will drive behavior. In the study, 200 children were examined, aged 3 to 6. Each child was taken into a classroom with a fun red slide, and was shown a video of a girl who destroyed another child’s drawing. The children were given two options: punish the child and lose the slide, or don’t punish the child and enjoy the slide. About half the children approved of the punishment, with older children being more likely to punish.
Why are we wired this way? That may be a question for another day. “Of course, we cannot say with certainty if this behavior is innate or learned in the first years of life,” Yudkin concludes. “But it adds to the growing evidence that, at a very young age, humans are predisposed to do good and encourage good behavior in others.“