Children as young as 3 years old possess a keen sense of restorative justice and a “surprising” level of concern for others, according to the results of a new study by researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, and the University of Manchester in the UK.

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The researchers used a large turntable divided into quarters that demarcated the child’s position from the position of a “victim” puppet on the child’s left and a “thief” puppet to their right.
Image credit: University of Manchester

Researchers want to understand more about the origins of human society’s sense of justice, and so are studying the point at which it first emerges among young children.

Previously, studies using puppets have found that children will be more likely to share with a puppet that helped someone else than with a puppet who displayed bad behavior. The children in these studies were also found to be more supportive of punishment administered to a puppet that “deserved it” than a puppet that did nothing wrong.

In the new study – the findings of which are published in the journal Current Biology – the Max Planck team again used puppets, giving their 3- and 5-year-old participants the option of taking items away from puppets that had themselves taken items away from another puppet.

Across two experiments, the researchers used a large turntable divided into quarters that demarcated the child’s position from the position of a “victim” puppet on the child’s left and a “thief” puppet to their right. The fourth quarter of the turntable was an inaccessible region known as “the cave.” Ropes underneath the table allowed the child or the thief to turn the table, and it was made clear to the child that the victim puppet was unable to turn the table themselves.

The study found that the children were equally as likely to intervene on behalf of a wronged puppet as they were for themselves. The researchers also observed that the 3-year-old participants, when presented with a range of options, were more likely to return an item than remove it.

Medical News Today asked study author Dr. Keith Jensen, of the University of Manchester, why the 3-year-olds were more likely to return an item than any other option. He replied:

Restoration appears to be easier than punishment. Three-year-olds would sometimes be distressed enough at witnessing a theft when their only recourse was punishment and the test would have to be stopped. Punishment does not seem to come naturally to the younger kids.

However, restoration makes more sense to them – give back to someone what they lost, regardless of how they lost it. Which is another question that would be worth exploring – what if the victim was careless and lost their things?”

Dr. Jensen claims that the findings provide a new insight into the nature of justice, with the chief implication being that empathy is a core component of a sense of justice, which in turn feeds into an understanding of punishment and cooperation. He describes the take-home message as being that preschool children are sensitive to harm to others, and given a choice, they would rather restore things to help the victim than punish the perpetrator.

We asked Dr. Jensen what kind of practical interventions might be suggested by the study for use among teachers and parents.

He replied that puppets have been used in therapy and “are good tools to explore social behaviors.” While young children are – hopefully – infrequently exposed to theft and unfairness, puppets can be used to demonstrate these concepts “in a relatively safe environment.”

“I think it’s particularly valuable that children can become actively involved in meting out justice, rather than passively watching or being asked what they think is right,” Dr. Jensen told us. “Young children are not very good at justifying their actions, so it is helpful to have them act directly.”