Humans are innately social creatures—we rely on one another to survive and naturally seek companionship. Still, some of us are more social than others. One person may receive greater fulfillment from a night out with friends, while another prefers their solitude. But the former is often favored—and the latter frowned upon. Why is that? New research from the Max Planck Institute says it’s impulse; and we may develop that impulse at a significantly young age.
This study “Preschool children and chimpanzees incur costs to watch punishment of antisocial others” found that children as young as six years old feel the need to punish antisocial behavior. In addition, they are willing to take risks and ensure their presence for the guilty (or antisocial) individual’s reprimand. These findings show that the sympathy we typically feel and act upon in situations of the like can be counteracted.
To explore the little-known evolutionary origin of this behavior, the researchers investigated both children and chimpanzees. In the first experiment, they focused solely on children, whom participated in a puppet show. There were two different plots: in one plot, the puppet gave the children their favorite toy back; in the other, a different puppet kept the toy for themselves. Then, in either case, a third puppet punished the puppets by pretending to hit them on the head with a stick. It was up to the kids (aged four to six) to decide if they wanted to watch the punishments or instead get stickers.
The researchers found that a majority of children refused to watch the first, friendly puppet get punished; but in the case of the antisocial puppet, the six-year-olds preferred watching the punishment to getting the stickers. This age group even appeared to experience pleasure from watching the puppet suffer. Four and five-year-olds, on the other hand, did not display the same behavior.
In the next experiment, the team of scientists observed similar behavior trends in chimps, thanks to the help of two zookeepers. One zookeeper played the role of a social individual who regularly fed them, while the other took on an antisocial role by taking their food away. As with the former experiment, another character pretended to punish both of the zookeepers by beating them with a stick. Again, a majority made an effort to witness the despised, antisocial individual get punished. And when it came to the friendly zookeeper, the chimps refused to watch his reprimanding—even when pain was inflicted on the chimps for doing so.
Natacha Mendes, an author of the study and scientist at Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, explained the implications of the team’s findings: “Our results demonstrate that six-year-old children and even chimpanzees want to avenge antisocial behavior and that they feel an urge to watch it. This is where the evolutionary roots of such behavior originate, a crucial characteristic to manage living in a community.”
Mendes’ coauthor and fellow scientist, Nikolaus Steinbeis, followed up with an explanation of the study’s uncertainties. “We cannot definitely say that the children and chimpanzees felt spite,” he began. “However, their behavior is a clear sign that six-year-old children as well as chimpanzees are eager to observe how uncooperative members of their community are punished.”
Max Planck Institute (2018, January 7). Vengeance is Sweet. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved January 7, 2018 from http://neurosciencenews.com/vengeance-antisocial-behavior-8278/
Mendes, N., Steinbeis, N., Bueno-Guerra, N., Call, J., & Singer, T. (2017, December 18). Preschool children and chimpanzees incur costs to watch punishment of antisocial others. Nature Human Behavior. Retrieved on January 11, 2018 from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-017-0264-5
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