Recognising wrongdoing: Young children's reasoning about morality

Student thesis: Phd


By the end of preschool, children are moral agents. They hold themselves to the same “objective” normative standards that they hold others to, and behave and expect others to behave according to these standards. Whenever these standards are not upheld, they experience guilt and expect to see it in others, and during the later preschool years, use their culture’s shared hierarchy of values to justify their moral judgements (e.g., ruining another’s artwork because “I thought it was mine”) and to evaluate the reasons others give for theirs. The focus of the current thesis was twofold; to extent the evidence for preschool children’s norm-based, agent-neutral sense of morality, and for their awareness of morally (in)appropriate justifications for moral acts. In the first study, I investigated whether children apply impartial norms to their requests for help. Children aged 3 and 5 made a variety of requests for resources that they either did or did not need from an experimenter who either did or did not need them. Results suggest children of both age groups were slower and more hesitant to make an unjustified request (i.e., the child did not need the sticker, but the experimenter did) than a justified request (i.e., the child needed the sticker, but the experimenter did not). Three-year-olds, and 5-year-olds to a lesser extent, also expressed more negative guilt-like emotion when making unjustified requests as measured through changes in body posture. Five-year-olds, on the other hand, relied more on verbal indirect utterances (e.g., “You’ve got lovely stickers”) as opposed to direct ones (e.g., “Can I have that sticker”) when making unjustified requests. Already at age 3, this study shows that preschool children are sensitive to the norms around requesting, and use them to evaluate whether or not their requests are fair to recipients. In the second study, I investigated when moral justifications become necessary. Using a partner-choice paradigm, 4- and 5-year-old children were presented with two transgressors, both of whom caused an intent-based accident (unintended action–unintended outcome) or a belief-based accident (intended action–unintended outcome). Both transgressors later apologised, however one also gave a reason for the hurt caused. The results suggest 5-year-olds, but not 4-year-olds, favoured the reason-giving transgressor when the accidents were belief-based, whereas no preference for either transgressor was found when the accidents were intent-based (meaning an apology was suffice). In a follow-up study, the reason given for the belief-related harm was manipulated. One transgressor gave a “good” reason, the other gave a “bad” reason. Five-year-olds reliably distinguished between both reasons and preferred the transgressor with the “good” reason. Thus, older preschoolers realise that some mistakes need or benefit from “good” explanations, while others can go without. In the third study, I explored the boundaries of moral justifications. Five- and 6-year-old children witnessed a recurring harm that was caused by an apologetic actor who repeated the same reason after each offence (Same Reason condition), gave different reasons (Different Reason condition), or who was present but not personally responsible for the damage done (Baseline condition). The results suggest children of both ages were most trusting of the actor in the Baseline condition, followed by the Different Reason condition, and least trusting in the Same Reason condition. Both ages were also slower to trust the actor in the Same Reason condition as compared to the other two conditions. Thus, preschool children recognise that different reasons should accompany a repeat of the same harm. This study also shows preschool children extend the use of their culture’s ordering of moral values to repeat offences. Together, the present studies suggest that before school entry, children already measure themselves against
Date of Award1 Aug 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorIain Jackson (Supervisor), Keith Jensen (Supervisor) & Bahar Köymen (Supervisor)


  • Posture
  • Guilt
  • Normativity
  • Prosociality
  • Moral development
  • Moral reasoning
  • Morality

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