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Altruistic Punishment

Altruistic Punishment in Children

In this research, I was interested in the age at which children become willing to punish a wrongdoer at personal cost. 

I ran the experiment in the Children's Museum of Manhattan. We recruited children ages 3-6 and brought them into a  classroom in the corner of which was a large slide. After being given the opportunity to test out the slide, participants were asked to draw a picture for a book that they were told would be used to demonstrate the creativity of the children who came to the museum. Once they had drawn a picture of their own and placed it in the book, children were told that two other children had also drawn pictures earlier in the day. One of these children asked the other to hold her drawing while she went to the bathroom. Participants were then shown a video of what transpired. The child who had been entrusted with the drawing proceeded to crumple it up and throw it on the floor.

Setting of the altruistic punishment experiment. Children 3-6 must decide whether to close the slide (green sign) to stop a wrongdoer from going down. 

Setting of the altruistic punishment experiment. Children 3-6 must decide whether to close the slide (green sign) to stop a wrongdoer from going down. 

            After witnessing this transgression, participants were told that the transgressor had mentioned she would be coming back later in the day to play on the slide. They were then presented with the punishment phase of the experiment. Participants were handed a large sign, on either side of which was written the words “Open” and “Closed,” and told to place it on the slide. Placing the “Closed” sign on the slide was rendered costly by the fact that, in so doing, participants deprived themselves of any future opportunity to go down. 

We were interested in several things. Most importantly, we were interested in at what age children would willingly close the slide to prevent 

 
 

The results showed that children as young as three years old willingly close the slide to punish a transgressor from going down. This is the youngest age that this tendency has ever been observed. 

Children as young as three years of age willingly pay a cost to punish someone who has broken the rules. 

Children as young as three years of age willingly pay a cost to punish someone who has broken the rules.