Kids seem to learn about the idea of hypocrisy early in elementary school, new research suggests.
The researchers discovered that children who were at least 7 years old began to predict future behavior based on a person’s statement about morals.
Unlike their younger peers, those children think that someone who says stealing is bad would be less likely to steal. Further, they think if those individuals did steal, they should receive harsher punishments.
“Our findings suggest that children of this age are thinking critically about people falsely representing themselves in some way,” says first author Hannah Hok, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago. “They’re thinking about reputation at a relatively early age.”
The research, which appears in the journal Child Development, relied on a series of experiments conducted with more than 400 children ranging from 4 to 9 years old.
“Children understand that when people’s words—when they talk about moral principles—are discordant with their actual behavior, they should be punished more harshly,” says senior author Alex Shaw, assistant professor of psychology and a leading expert on how concepts such as reputation and fairness develop in childhood.
In the first experiment, the researchers told participants about two children, one who condemned stealing (“Stealing is bad.”) and one who made a morally neutral statement (“Broccoli is gross.”). The researchers then asked them to predict who was more likely to steal, and which theft should be punished more severely.
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Researchers asked participants in other experiments to compare someone who condemned stealing with someone who praised sharing (“Sharing is really, really good.”), as well as with someone who denied stealing (“I never steal.”).
In all cases, the 7- to 9-year-old participants were more likely than younger children (ages 4 to 6) to use condemnation as a predictor for future action.
A final experiment presented participants with someone who praised stealing and someone who condemned it. Both older and younger children predicted that the former would be more likely to steal—indicating that young children may have particular trouble using condemnation as a behavioral signal.
Interviewing children at a Chicago science museum, the researchers did not collect demographic information other than age and gender, and did not find significant gender-based differences in their results.
Shaw hopes to conduct more research into the behavior of younger children and whether they can better predict actions that are morally neutral, such as eating broccoli. He also hopes to examine how children’s judgments may change with social context, and how they treat hypocrisy that doesn’t benefit the speaker.
“It may not be inconsistency, per se, that kids are reacting to,” Shaw says. “We think it’s engaging in hypocrisy to benefit yourself that provokes the negative reaction.”
Additional coauthors are from New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Chicago.
About the Authors
Alex Shaw is the senior author of the study and an assistant professor of psychology. Hannah Hok, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, is a first author of the study.