Two experiments recently found that children of conservative parents were more willing to punish children who were not members of their group for transgressions. Children of liberal parents punished children who were members of their groups and those that were not equally in the first experiment and punished children who were members of their own group more in the second experiment. The study was published in Psychological Science.
From very early age, children are willing to accept a personal cost in order to punish wrongdoings of others, even when those wrongdoings do not affect them personally. This behavior is found across cultures and scientists refer to it as the “costly third-party punishment.”
This is also seen in adults. Persons might, for example, file a police report about a certain crime they observed and spend considerable time doing it, even though they were not personally affected by that crime.
It is, however, unclear what motivation drives this behavior. One possibility is that it is based on the desire to enforce norms of cooperation within the group. Another possibility is that such punishments simply reflect a desire to cause harm and express anger at the perpetrators.
If this later possibility is the case, than it could be expected that children are more willing to punish persons who are not members of their own group as people often view other groups more negatively than their own.
The motivation to punish can also be associated with values and beliefs a person holds. For example, political conservativism is associated with increased concerns for the loyalty to the group and general tendencies for hostilities towards other groups.
Liberalism is, on the other hand, associated with prioritizing fairness over loyalty and rehabilitative punishment over retribution. Political ideology is also something that parents can easily transmit to their children.
“My collaborators and I were really interested in the question of how beliefs about the social world get transmitted to children,” said Rachel A. Leshin, a PhD student at New York University and corresponding author of the new study. “Children have all sorts of complex beliefs and intuitions about the world around them, but it’s not entirely clear how these beliefs form in the first place.”
“Parents are a really interesting entry point here. We were particularly excited about exploring the influence of parents’ beliefs on children’s punishment behavior, as prior research has found some conflicting patterns in how children punish in-group vs. out-group members. We thought that these differences in who children punish could be related to children’s broader beliefs about social groups, and so we thought that testing parents’ political ideology could be an interesting and new way to test this question.”
To study whether parents’ political ideology is associated with costly third-party punishment behavior of their very young children, Leshin and her colleagues conducted two experiments on a total of 269 children aged 3-8 years. Children in the first experiment, 88 of them, were from the children’s museum in New York. The second experiment was conducted on a group of 181 children and their parents recruited from a user database of children and parents across the United States.
In the first experiment, children were shown a slide at the museum and the experimenter explained that the slide is currently closed, but that it can be opened for children who have been following all the rules. All children confirmed that they have been following all the rules. They were then shown a video in which a child tore up a picture another child asked him/her to hold while he/she is in the bathroom.
Depending on the experimental condition, the child participating in the experiment was told that the picture was for the New York museum, thus making the child that tore up the picture member of the same group as the child participating in the experiment, or for the museum in Boston, thus making the child that tore up the picture a member of a different group.
The child participating in the experiment was then told that the child that tore up the picture is coming to use the slide and asked whether it would keep the slide open or closed. Closing the slide for the child that tore up the picture meant also that the child participating in the experiment could not use it.
In the second experiment, children completed the procedure from their home computers. After watching a video about animals and receiving some explanations, children were randomly told that they either belong to a group of Flurps or Toogits (made-up names). They were than shown a child of the same gender, told that it is a member of Toogits and that this child was drawing a picture together with another child.
The video of the child tearing up the picture (the one introduced as a Toogit) followed and the child was asked after that whether the child who tore up the picture should get to play online games and watch videos from a video bank (non-costly punishment).
Thereafter, experimenters asked the child whether it would open the video allowing both him/herself and the child who tore up the picture to watch videos or impose a 1-minute delay to opening the video bank that would affect both him/herself and the child who tore up the picture (costly punishment). Parents’ political ideology was assessed using a self-assessment scale ranging from very liberal to very conservative.
In both experiments, around half of the children decided to enact a costly punishment and a similar percentage of children chose not to punish. In the first experiment, children of more conservative parents were more willing to punish the child that was not a member of their group. Punishment of the child that was a member of their group was not associated with the ideology of parents.
In the second experiment, children of more conservative parents were again more willing to punish the child that was not a member of their group. However, this time, children of more liberal parents were more willing to punish a child that was a member of their own group. Children who punished were also 3 times as likely to decline to play with the punished child than those who did not.
“The big takeaway here is that parents’ beliefs relate to how their children behave, even when the relationship between beliefs (e.g., political ideology) and behavior (e.g., punishment) isn’t all that obvious on the surface,” Leshin told PsyPost. “In our study, we found that children’s likelihood of punishing someone from their own group vs. someone from a different group varied by the political ideology of their parents.”
“Specifically, children of more liberal parents were more likely to punish members of their own group than the other group, whereas children of more conservative parents were more likely to punish members of the other group than their own group. Our data do not tell us the specific mechanism driving these results, so we don’t want to make any strong claims about that, but they do tell us that there is a powerful connection between what parents believe and the social behaviors children gravitate toward early on.”
The study sheds light on how political ideology shapes punishment related behavior in children. However, it should be noted that the experiment was done under controlled conditions and real-life punishment related behavior might not be the same.
“An important caveat is that we don’t yet know the mechanisms driving our pattern of results — that is, we don’t know exactly what part of parents’ political ideology is linked to children’s punishment behavior, and how this process of transmission is happening,” Leshin noted. “For example, are there specific attitudes or beliefs that are associated with different ideological positions that are driving our results? We ruled out factors related to parenting styles and religiosity, but we didn’t look at, for example, parents’ attitudes toward groups or beliefs about group loyalty.”
“We also don’t know how transmission is happening — is it through how parents talk to children about groups? The types of environments parents choose to raise children in? Or something else entirely? These are really exciting and important questions; they were beyond the scope of our specific study, but they should definitely be pursued in future research.”
The study, “Parents’ Political Ideology Predicts How Their Children Punish”, was authored by Rachel A. Leshin, Daniel A. Yudkin, Jay J. Van Bavel, Lily Kunkel, and Marjorie Rhodes.