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Children, young people and families, Government and politics

Children's decisions to punish others vary according to their parents' political views

Parental conservatism is linked to punishment of out-group members, and parental liberalism to in-group punishment

18 November 2022

By Emma Young

When a child witnesses another doing something wrong, they may well opt to punish the perpetrator, even when this wrongdoing hasn’t harmed them personally, but the punishment will.

This is called ‘costly punishment’, but exactly what motivates it isn’t clear. One idea is that it springs from a desire to maintain group norms (that stealing is wrong, for example), and so would be most likely to be directed towards members of the same community. An alternative is that it stems from a desire to express anger and cause harm; if this is right, it could be more likely to be targeted at outsiders, since we tend to view out-groups more negatively.

Research has found that children sometimes behave consistently with the first theory, but sometimes with the second. Now new work in Psychological Science suggests a reason for this: different kids grow up with different attitudes to punishment, which relate to their parents’ political ideology (political ideology is, as the team notes, often used as a proxy for group-related values, beliefs and attitudes). Rachel A Leshin at New York University and colleagues found that the kids of conservative parents punished other kids differently to the kids of liberal parents.

In an initial study, the team used data collected for a study published in 2020, in which children observed what they thought was another child ripping up someone else’s drawing. About half of the kids opted to inflict a costly punishment on the perpetrator, choosing to close a slide, which meant that the offender wouldn’t be able to play on it, but neither would they.

Importantly, in some scenarios offenders had been portrayed as coming from a different city from the participants, and therefore part of an out-group. In others, they came from the same city, and so were in-group members. The parents had also completed a questionnaire measuring political ideology from ‘very liberal’ to ‘very conservative’. Using all this data in their reanalysis, Leshin and her team found that the more conservative the parents were, the more willing their children were to punish offenders from an out-group – but parental political ideology had no impact on rates of punishment of in-group members. The children of ‘very liberal’ parents were just as likely to punish out-group as in-group members, but if parents were at least 'moderately' conservative, their children were more likely to punish out-group than in-group members. This study provided “preliminary evidence” of links between parental political ideology and the punishment style of their children, the team concluded.

However, this study had some drawbacks, not least that these links were statistically barely significant. So the team then ran a more rigorous study. This time, they recruited 181 American parents plus children aged 5- 8 for an online experiment. The children watched an animated video that first encouraged them to feel that they belonged to one group of children but not another (either 'Toogits' or 'Flurps'). Next they were introduced to a gender-matched 'Toogit', who had purportedly been drawing pictures with another child — but who had torn up that child’s picture when they were out of the room.

The children then had a decision to make. They could opt to inflict no punishment, opening up a library of fun animal videos to both the transgressor and themselves. Or they could impose a costly punishment: locking the video bank for a minute for the transgressor, delaying their viewing pleasure, but also locking it for the child as well.

The children’s parents ranked themselves on a scale from ‘very liberal’ to ‘very conservative’, and also answered questions about their levels of religiosity, parenting style and child-rearing values.

Just under half of the children opted to enact the costly punishment. And in this experiment, parents’ political ideology influenced children’s decisions about punishing in-group members. When faced with an in-group transgressor, the more conservative the parents were, the less willing their children were to punish the transgressor. Children of particularly conservative parents were again more likely to punish an out-group than in-group member, while children of particularly liberal parents were more likely to punish an in-group than out-group member.

Overall, the team reports, parental conservatism seemed to be linked more to out-group punishment, and parental liberalism to in-group punishment. Leshin and her colleagues explored whether other factors – including an authoritarian parenting style and level of religious belief – rather than political ideology, might instead explain the punishment decisions. But they did not.

This finding would not be surprising in adults; conservatism has been associated with more loyalty to the in-group and more hostility to out-groups, whereas liberalism has been linked to greater concerns about policing the group’s own behaviour. But this research suggests that these attitudes are passed to even quite young children, affecting how they treat others from an early age. “These findings reveal the unique role of political ideology in shaping the development of group-related punishment,” the team concludes.