Are children hard wired to seek revenge? New BU study says yes, they are
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Are children hard wired to seek revenge? New BU study says yes, they are

by Freya Lucas

July 21, 2020

A new study conducted by psychologists from Boston University (BU) suggests that for children, retribution comes before gratitude, and that the desire to seek revenge against a wrong develops before a desire to “pay back” the kindness of another with another kind deed. 


Associate Professor Peter Blake set out to better understand how and when positive direct reciprocity — paying back a kindness to a specific individual — develops in young children.


“The idea that you pay back specifically the person who helped you is a really important piece for the evolution of cooperation,” Associate Professor Blake said. “It’s what sets up a relationship that will hold over the long term.” 


Working with fellow scientists from Franklin and Marshall College, Yale University, and the University of California, Irvine, Associate Professor Blake recruited 330 children between the ages of four and eight years old to participate in a series of experiments examining reciprocity. 


In each trial, a child is invited to play a computer game with four other “players” — which are, in reality, on-screen animal cartoon avatars controlled by the researchers. 


The four other players each receive a sticker, but the child gets none. The game dictates that the other players may either keep their stickers or give the child their sticker. Then one player (randomly selected by Blake’s team) “chooses” to give a sticker to the child. 


Immediately after, the screen resets, and now it’s the child who receives the only sticker and can bestow it on a player of his or her choice. Next comes the second phase of the game, which mirrors the first — only this time, one of the other players steals a sticker from the child, and then the child gets to steal a sticker from another player. 


Associate Professor Blake and his colleagues found that even the youngest children readily retaliated against the sticker thieves, specifically targeting them when it came time to take back a sticker. 


However, the children showed no propensity to reward the kind animal who had given them a sticker when instructed to give away a sticker. Benefactors fared no better in the sticker giveaway than any other player. 

While some may generously dismiss the children’s refusal to reward the kind sticker giver as “a lapse in memory”, researchers countered this possibility. Immediately after each game, researchers quizzed the children on the identities of the givers and takers. 

Children recalled both the givers and the takers with a high degree of  accuracy. The findings, which were published in Psychological Science, even held when the scientists analysed exclusively results from the children who answered the memory check questions correctly. 


The research team found this curious – children clearly had no problem punishing the thieves, so why didn’t they feel compelled to repay a kind deed? 


“We were really puzzled by it,” Associate Professor Blake said. As such, they began manipulating variables within the original experiment to make it easier for children to identify and reward their benefactors. 


The scientists made the giving and stealing voluntary, speculating that children who were more committed to taking action might be more intentional with their targets. Another trial introduced grouping by color, with two of the players wearing the same colour clothes as the child’s avatar. Perhaps a child might be more inclined to reward those who share some similarities? In trial after trial, nothing worked, they found. 


The penchant for retribution held, while reciprocating kindness didn’t materialise. “We couldn’t get them to do it,” Associate Professor Blake said. “One experiment turned to five just trying to get this to work.” 


So, are kids hardwired for revenge? Associate Professor Blake believes it’s more of a defensive move — protecting oneself from future victimisation.

“Children aren’t out to get people,” Associate Professor Blake said, but they are sending a signal to the one who did them wrong, and the broader world that “I’m not a sucker.” 

He explained the fact that negative reciprocity appears to emerge earlier than positive reciprocity may mean these behaviours spring from distinct developmental mechanisms, citing prior research that indicates young children expect others to be kind to them, so antagonistic behaviour may register more strongly and prompt a more urgent response. 


The study does, however, offer one promising tip for adults  hoping to instill more gratitude in children: tell them a considerate story. 


In the final trial of the experiment, researchers told children a simple story illustrating positive reciprocity between peers. The idea was proposed by Jingshi Hu, an undergraduate researcher working in Associate Professor Blake’s lab. 

A native of China, Mr Hu was convinced that Chinese children, who are taught through proverbs and stories to show gratitude from a young age, would engage in positive direct reciprocity earlier than their American counterparts. The tactic worked. 

After hearing the story, children were more likely to reciprocate to their benefactors, and the trend only grew stronger with age. Returning the favour, it seems, can be taught with relative ease. 


Associate Professor Blake plans to repeat these experiments in China to test Hu’s hypothesis. In the meantime, he said, adults needn’t be troubled by the findings. Behaviours — even those we’d like to avoid — evolve for a reason. 


“If someone steals your lunch money every day, you should do something about it. In primate society, some monkeys or apes get harassed, and that can have devastating effects — they can die in the wild. As far as evolution goes, it’s definitely critical that you stand up for yourself.”


To read the research in full, please see here

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