When do young children expect others to feel guilty?

    • Topic: Social Interactions

    • Location: Discovery Center

    Young children know that certain actions like hitting and pushing are wrong, but sometimes these behaviors allow them to get what they want (e.g., hitting someone in order to get a toy). This study explores whether children think that aggression will lead to happy or guilty feelings in different situations.

    In this study, we read children (ages 3-8) two types of stories involving one child pushing another. In one type of story, one child wants an object (e.g., a ball), and pushes another child in order to get it. In the second type of study, one child simply wants to push another child. In both stories, the first child ends up getting what he/she wanted by pushing someone, but in the second type of story, the child’s desire is “wicked.” After each story, we’ll ask children how they think that the aggressor (the child who did the pushing) will feel.

    We predict that young children (around age 3) will attribute different feelings to the aggressor depending on his/her motives for pushing. If the aggressor desires a toy, children may state that s/he feels happy after pushing someone in order to get it. If the aggressor desires to hurt someone (a “wicked desire”), children may state that s/he feels guilty after pushing. Older children in the study (around ages 4-6) may have a more complex view of desire and emotion. They might attach good feelings to desires that are satisfied, even if the desires themselves are "wicked." We also expect that the oldest children in the study (over age 7) will have more mature ideas about the characters' experiences of guilty or mixed feelings.

    This study will help us understand how children perceive transgressions in daily life, and what types of feelings they attribute to their peers in different social situations.

    Smith, C. E., & Warneken, F. (2014). Does it always feel good to get what you want? Young children differentiate between material and wicked desires. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 32(1), 3-16.

    This research is conducted by Craig Smith, Ed.D., Harvard Department of Psychology

        » Harvard University Laboratory for Developmental Studies

    Activities to Try in the Discovery Center

    What is wicked?

    Many animals must hunt other animals in order to survive. Is this a “bad” desire? Try being a robin with your child in the Discovery Center’s Robin’s Nest! Hunt for some insects to eat – can you find some ants, caterpillars, spiders, or ladybugs? Ask your child how a robin would feel if it had to catch bugs to feed its nestlings. Would it feel good, would it feel guilty, or maybe a little of both?

    Activities to Try at Home

    Motives and transgressions

    When people do something “wrong” they may have many different motives. Imagine some different situations when a child could be caught doing something wrong (like taking a toy from someone else, pushing someone, or lying), and think of some reasons why the child might do it. Do some of the reasons make them seem “bad”? Do other motives make their actions justified or acceptable? Ask your children what they think – is it ever ok to take something from someone? Does it make you “bad” or “wicked”? How would they feel in each situation?

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