Are children hardwired for revenge?

Published on Tuesday, 15 September 2020
Last updated on Wednesday, 21 October 2020

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We’ve all witnessed the outbreak of a scuffle as a young child retaliates against another who has taken their toy or knocked over their building blocks. It’s an instinctive reaction for most children. So, does it follow that repaying a kindness is also instinctive? Is the idiom, “one good turn deserves another” capturing a natural childhood reflex?

Well, according to a recent study, the answer is ‘no’. In a paper published last year in Psychological Science,  American researchers showed that young children were hardwired to seek revenge against bad behaviour but were unconcerned with repaying a kindness.

“In our series of experiments, we thought we’d see that children would display positive direct reciprocity – the tendency to pay back those who have helped – from an early age. That wasn’t the case,” says lead author Nadia Chernyak, assistant professor of cognitive sciences at the University of California.

“Preschool-aged children showed almost no awareness that they should repay favours.”

The principal of direct reciprocity – paying back those who help you – is often cited to explain the success of communities and the evolution of cooperation. The researchers reasoned that if reciprocity evolved as a foundation of the way human beings interact with others, it should come naturally to children.

“We found that children intuitively hold grudges but have to be taught to show gratitude,” says Chernyak.

“It’s important to be aware that children’s principles look a little different than those of adults. The good news is that their behaviour in this area is flexible. They easily grasp the norm of repaying favours.”

For early childhood educators, the study offers insight on child development and the importance of nurturing a child’s ability to reciprocate kindness.

The experiment: A game of giving and thieving

The study included researchers from University of California, Yale, and Boston University and set out to better understand the development of reciprocity. Five experiments were conducted with 330 children aged from four to eight-year-olds.

Each experiment consisted of a child playing a computer game with four other “players” – in reality, on-screen animal cartoon avatars were controlled by the researchers. All four players received a sticker, but the child received none. The game dictated other players could keep their stickers or give the child their sticker. One player gave a sticker to the child. The screen then reset, with the reverse happening – the child received the sticker and had the opportunity to give it to a player of their choice.

Next came the second phase of the game, which mirrors the first phase except one player steals a sticker from the child, and then the child gets the chance to steal a sticker from another player.

The researchers found children easily retaliated against the sticker thieves, and even targeted them when it was time to take back a sticker. But the kids showed no propensity to reward their benefactors when instructed to give away their sticker. Since they had no trouble punishing the thieves, why didn’t they feel compelled to repay a kind deed?

It wasn’t a memory issue. Children were quizzed after each game and they easily recalled who gave them stickers and who stole them.

Despite changing variables, the researchers couldn’t get the children to reciprocate kindness. While the penchant for retribution held.

Fellow researcher, Peter Blake, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University believes that retaliation is more of a defensive move.

“As far as evolution goes, it’s definitely critical that you stand up for yourself,” says Blake.

He explained that negative reciprocity emerges earlier than positive reciprocity and this may mean these behaviours spring from distinct developmental mechanisms. Blake cited prior research that suggested young children expect others to be kind to them, so antagonistic behaviour may register more strongly and prompt a more urgent response.

The final twist delivers a kindness payback

The final experiment provided good news. Prior to the trial, researchers told children a simple story illustrating positive reciprocity between peers. It worked.

After hearing the story, children were more likely to reciprocate a kindness back to their benefactors, and the trend only grew stronger with age. Returning the favour, it seems, can be taught with ease using social-norm training. 

The outcome showed that while children are capable of direct reciprocity, they seem more likely to repay negative actions in kind than to repay positive actions. Yet it is possible for positive direct reciprocity to be learned by exposure to stories about reciprocation.

Nurturing positive reciprocity

A key takeaway of this study for educators is the importance of purposeful teaching of gratitude and using teachable moments to reinforce reciprocating kindness. Here are some ideas for teaching children about kindness:

Read books about kindness:

Taking direction from the research, choose books that contain prompts for educators to scaffold pro-social behaviours such as repaying kindness. Reading books allows children to talk about the behaviour and become invested in characters’ experiences, imagining themselves in other people’s shoes.

Use additional resources to model behaviour and explore positive social behaviour such as personal stories, art, drama, movies, photos and technology.

Use puppets:

Puppets are a winning combination, mixing the joy of craft making with the experience of a show! By using puppets, children can gain a better understanding of emotions and behaviours. Puppets also provide a vehicle for educators to teach kindness through pretend play, observation and experience.

Cultivate gratitude:

Research informs us that gratitude is not an inherent natural behaviour, rather it is a learned behaviour that takes practice through action. It is a human emotion that allows young children to appreciate acts of kindness and to take the perspective of others. For a comprehensive list of learning strategies to encourage gratitude read our article, Small but powerful steps to build a sense of gratitude.

The Kindness Curriculum:

The Kindness Curriculum is connected to the national school curriculum in Australia and focuses on the development of core attributes underpinning kindness: collaboration, compassion, empathy, gratitude, honesty, humility, humour, mindfulness meditation, perspective, positivity, self-acceptance and trust. The age appropriate learning activities can be easily integrated into daily teaching routines in any early childhood setting.

In most instances, links to online video and story resources have been supplied allowing teachers to access learning materials quickly and easily, to complement existing programs, and to be responsive to student needs. The curriculum is built on the premise, “that wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca.

Additional strategies for educators include:

  • Be a positive role model of what you would like the children to do
  • Build up a class ‘language’ of feelings and pro-social behaviour by naming social and emotional skills and referring to them regularly
  • Use naturally occurring activities to talk about social and emotional skills
  • Integrate social and emotional skills into the daily curriculum
  • Teach the behaviour that is expected in class explicitly, in the playground, in small groups, at transition times during the day, etc.
  • Consider using an evidence based, specific social-emotional learning (SEL) program

Thank you to University of California for their insights on this study, which were used to write this article.

References and further reading

Research paper: Paying Back People Who Harmed Us but Not People Who Helped Us: Direct Negative Reciprocity Precedes Direct Positive Reciprocity in Early Development

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