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Children and chimpanzees prefer seeing others get punished, but only if they were not cooperating

Posted December 26, 2017

People don‘t appreciate antisocial behaviour. Most of them like to punish people for misbehaving. But is it something we learn or are born with? Scientists from UCL conducted a research, which showed that both six-year-old children and chimpanzees love seeing antisocial individuals get punished and are even willing to pay to see that.

Chimpanzees and children did not like seeing good individuals getting hit, but made efforts to see ‘guilty’ ones punished. Image credit: böhringer friedrich via Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 2.5)

This behaviour was thought to be common in adult people only, but now scientists see that even six-year-olds are willing to take risks and make efforts just to see the unfitting individual get punished. Scientists have contemplated that this somewhat bizarre behaviour may actually be a useful mechanism for living amicably in communities. However, scientists are not saying that children and chimpanzees were feeling spite, but they were totally eager to be present when the ‘guilty’ individual, who was not cooperating, was punished. Interestingly, scientists used a puppet show to research children behaviour.

The study included 65 children aged between four and six years old. They were participating in a puppet show that included mean and friendly puppets. Friendly puppet gave children their favourite toys back, while the naughty one kept it for itself. Meanwhile there was a third puppet, who was taking a role of a punisher – he was hitting the other two with a stick. Children had a choice – to pay a coin and watch a puppet get hit, or miss the spectacle and use the coin to get stickers.  If the good puppet was about to get hit, children refused to watch. But if the naughty one was threatened by the stick, children were happy to pay the coin and were even showing signs of pleasure in their faces. However, only six-year-olds – four- and five-year-old children did not show this behaviour.

Similar phenomenon was observed in an experiment in Leipzig Zoo with chimpanzees. However, here instead of puppets were zookeepers – the naughty one was taking the food away. Animals were making efforts to see the naughty zookeeper get hit with a stick. They also protested when pain was inflicted on the good zookeeper. Dr Natacha Mendes, one of the authors of the study, said: “Our results demonstrate that six-year-old children and even chimpanzees want to avenge antisocial behaviour and that they feel an urge to watch it. This is where the evolutionary roots of such behaviour originates, a crucial characteristic to manage living in a community”.

This is very interesting because it shows our relation with other primates. Humans are social animals and everyone who does not cooperate deserves to be punished – that is the system we built. However, it is still unexpected that children want to see the punishment with their own eyes.

Source: UCL

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