According to a new study, children as young as three years old do have a sense of justice and treat others as they would like to be treated themselves.
Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and the University of Manchester discovered that the young children were just as likely to respond to the needs of others as they were to take care of their own needs, despite the widespread belief that toddlers are selfish and unable to share with others.
The study found that children as young as three years old will choose to return a lost item to its rightful owner. If it is not possible to do so, the children would still find a way to prevent another person from taking the item that did not belong to them.
Experiments for the study used a puppet which that "stole" a cookie. The three and five year old participants would then try to return the cookie to its rightful owner. Researchers found the children were just as likely to do so for others as they were if the cookie had been stolen from themselves.
"The chief implication is that a concern for others – empathy, for example – is a core component of a sense of justice," said Keith Jensen of the University of Manchester. "This sense of justice based on harm to victims is likely to be central to human prosociality as well as punishment, both of which form the basis of uniquely human cooperation," he said.
If returning the cookie to its owner was not possible, children would try to punish the thief by placing the cookie out of their reach.
Researchers believe that the results show that rather than punishing young children when they harm others, parents should talk to them about their actions and the related consequences.
"It appears that a sense of justice centred on harm caused to victims emerges in early childhood. The take-home message is that pre-school children are sensitive to harm to others and given a choice would rather restore things to help the victim than punish the perpetrator. Rather than punish young children for wrong-doings, children might better understand harm done to the victim and restoration as a solution," researchers said.
While cooperation is typically encouraged in human society by punishing those who do not comply, previous studies using chimpanzees have shown that the animals tend to not punish those who cheat unless the act had a direct result on themselves, writes Fiona Macrae for The Daily Mail.
Jensen said that studying young children's belief in justice could help to understand how the trait appeared in human society. For example, an earlier study showed that young children would rather share with a puppet who they witnessed helping another person rather than with one who had displayed bad behavior. They also would rather see punishment handed down to a puppet who deserved it rather than one who did not.