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Children show an innate sense of justice, study finds

Children as young as three show a natural inclination towards restorative justice fed by a strong concern over the welfare of victims, according to a new study published in Current Biology.

Children are sensitive to harm to others and given a choice would rather restore things to help the victim than punish the perpetrator.

The researchers say the findings, based on experiments with 112 three-year-olds and 79 five-year-olds in Germany, provide insights into the roots of justice in human society.

the children were given the chance to take items away from a puppet that had “taken” them from another.

The research team at Max Planck Institute in Leipzig who ran the experiments found children were as likely to intervene on behalf of a puppet “victim” as they were for themselves.

Further, three-year-olds preferred to return an item than to remove it – and when that was not possible would make the item inaccessible so it could not be taken by anyone other than the owner.

“It appears that in humans, intervening on the behalf of others begins with a concern for the victim before becoming focused on consequences for the perpetrator,” the researchers, from the UK and Germany, conclude.

Previous studies have shown children are more likely to share with a puppet that helps another individual than with one who behaves badly.

They also prefer to see punishment delivered to a doll that deserves it than one that doesn’t. By the age of six, children will pay a price to punish fictional and real peers.

Co-author Dr Keith Jensen at the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Manchester says the findings can be of use in early education.

“Rather than punish children for wrong-doings or discuss the wrong-doings of others in punitive or perpetrator-focused ways, children might better understand harm done to the victim and restoration as the solution,” he says.

“The chief implication is that a concern for others – empathy, for example – is a core component of a sense of justice.”

Bill Condie

Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.

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