Children have the potential to think and make adult-like moral judgements, a research says, adding that their ability has often been substantially underestimated.
The findings showed that when making moral judgements, adults tend to focus on people’s intentions rather than on the outcomes of their actions. Hurting someone intentionally is much worse than hurting them accidentally.
“For most adults, if someone does something bad deliberately, they are worse than if they did it accidentally,” said Gavin Nobes, senior lecturer at University of East Anglia in Britain.
However, the prevailing view in developmental psychology is that younger children’s moral judgements are mainly based on the outcomes of actions, rather than the intentions of those involved, the study said.
To address this, the UEA researchers looked at the reasons for the findings of two of the most influential and frequently cited studies in this area, both of which provide strong evidence that young children’s moral judgements are mainly outcome-based.
The team replicated the studies — published in 1996 and 2001 — and examined the effects of rephrasing one of the questions.
While in the original studies children were asked whether the action was good or bad, the new question asked about the person who acted.
In the new study, when the original question was asked the findings were very similar to the previous studies.
That is, children’s and adults’ judgements were primarily outcome-based. They were regardless of intention, they judged accidents with good outcomes to be good, and accidents with bad outcomes to be bad.
However, when the question was rephrased, the 4- to 5-year-olds’ judgements were equally influenced by intention and outcome, and from 5 to 6 years they were mainly intention-based.
The older children’s and adults’ judgments were essentially reversed, from almost exclusively outcome-based in response to the original question, to almost exclusively intention-based when the rephrased question was asked.
“The study shows that children can be remarkably adult-like in their thinking. The implication is that even young children, from around the age of 4, can make intention-based moral judgements, just like adults,” Nobes added.
If adults can get a judgement wrong then a 5-year-old child is bound to get it wrong too, the researchers said.
For the study, published in the journal Cognition, the team involved 138 children aged 4- to 8-years-old and 31 adults. They were told and questioned about four stories involving accidental harms (positive intention, negative outcome) or attempted harms (negative intention, positive outcome).