Children Already Want Bad Guys Punished at 8 Months Old

The state of the universe.
Dec. 19 2013 3:53 PM

Babies Want Revenge

… As long as someone else levies the sentence. The science of right and wrong in infancy.

Babies Playing
Silently plotting revenge

Photo by Fuse/Thinkstock

Excerpted from Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil by Paul Bloom, out now from Crown.

The comedian Louis CK has a routine in which he talks about his daughter’s understanding of fairness. He begins, “My 5-year-old, the other day, one of her toys broke, and she demanded that I break her sister's toy to make it fair.” This would make the sisters equal but the joke here is that something here doesn’t feel right: “And I did. I was like crying. And I look at her. She’s got this creepy smile on her face.”

Other intuitions about fairness are simpler. Imagine you have two toys and two children, and you give both toys to one child. If the other child is old enough to speak, she will object. She might say “That’s not fair!” and she’d be correct. An even split would maximize the overall happiness of the children—give each child one toy and they’re both happy; divide them unevenly, and the child who gets nothing is miserable, her sadness outweighing the extra pleasure of the child who gets two. More to the point, it’s just wrong to establish an inequity when you don’t have to.

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But fairness is more than deciding the best way to distribute the positive. We also have to determine how to allocate the negative.

Revenge—the personal form of punishment, directed against those who have wronged us personally or who have harmed  our  family or friends—has certain distinctive features. Adam Smith describes our feelings toward a man who has murdered someone we love: “Resentment would prompt us to desire, not only that he should be punished, but that he should be punished by our means, and upon account of that particular injury which he had done to us. Resentment cannot be fully gratified, unless the offender is not only made to grieve in his turn, but to grieve for that particular wrong which we have suffered from him.”

Inigo Montoya, the character in The Princess Bride who seeks to avenge his father’s death,  echoes this sentiment. Montoya tells the man in black his plan: He will approach the murderer and say, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!” The killer must know precisely why he is being punished and by whom. Then, and only then, can Montoya kill him. (And when he does, it is deeply satisfying.)

In our modern Western societies, first-person revenge plays a less prominent role than it does in the so-called cultures of honor—the  Bedouin, criminal subcultures such as the Mafia, and the cowboy culture of the American West, for example. Individuals living in such cultures cannot rely on external authority to mete out justice, so it’s up to each individual to defend himself and those he cares about. A reputation for violence matters in these societies; this is what deters others from attacking or abusing you. Consistent with this theory, psychologists find that individuals in such societies tend to be disapproving of acts of disrespect and forgiving of acts of retribution.

The psychologist Steven Pinker argues that one reason for the drop in violence over history is the decline of such cultures. We’ve managed, in many parts of the world, to check our appetite for personal retribution. First-party revenge has been largely replaced with third-party punishment, enforced by the government. When my car window was smashed and my belongings were stolen a few months ago, I felt a flash of anger, but really, the problem was best addressed through a police report and a helpful insurance company. If Inigo Montoya were around now, he wouldn’t need to storm the castle to bring his father’s murderer to justice; the police would do it for him, and fewer people would have to die.

Most toddlers do not live in a culture of honor.  There is usually a Leviathan that will resolve conflicts and punish wrongdoers—such as a parent, babysitter, or teacher. Things do change in middle childhood, when children often find themselves in societies where tattling is discouraged and one is expected to fight one’s own battles. Many middle schools and high schools are much like the Wild West. But 2-year-olds are permitted to cry or run away or find an adult when someone smacks them; they aren’t required to retaliate.

This doesn’t mean that children are innocent of retributive desires. They are hardly pacifists, after all. Young children are highly aggressive; indeed, if you measure the rate of physical violence through  the life span, it peaks at about age 2. Families survive the Terrible Twos because toddlers aren’t strong enough to kill with their hands and aren’t capable of using lethal weapons. A 2-year-old with the physical capacities of an adult would be terrifying.

Children’s moralizing impulses are sometimes reflected in violence but are also expressed in a more subtle way. Children tattle. When they see wrongdoing, they are apt to complain about it to an authority figure, and they don’t need to be prompted to do so. In one study, 2- and 3-year-olds were taught a new game to play with a puppet; when the puppet started to break the rules, the children would spontaneously complain to adults. In studies of siblings between the ages of 2 and 6, investigators found that most of what the children said to their parents about their brothers or sisters counted as tattling. And their reports tended to be accurate. They were ratting their sibs out, but they were not making things up.

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