Teenagers’ propensity for antisocial behaviour is not related to their ability to think about the right and wrongs of a situation – their powers of moral reasoning. That’s according to Hammond Tarry and Nicholas Emler who say their results have implications for interventions intended to reform young offenders.
The researchers tested the ability of 789 boys aged between 12 and 15 years to think about the rights and wrongs of different situations (based on Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development). They also asked the boys about their moral values, their attitudes to authority and their record of antisocial behaviour over the last twelve months.
Teenagers with a negative attitude towards authority, including their teachers and the police, tended to report committing more antisocial behaviours such as stealing or fighting. Their moral values, such as promise keeping and truth, were also related to their levels of delinquent behaviour, but crucially, their powers of moral reasoning were not.
“This puts in doubt the likely efficacy of interventions intended to reform young offenders by raising their moral reasoning level,” the researchers said. Targeting youths’ attitudes to authority might be more effective, but the researchers cautioned that such attitudes “appear to possess considerable stability over time, indicating they are strongly held, deeply embedded in the individual’s identity and resistant to change.”
Tarry, H. & Emler, N. (2007). Attitudes, values and moral reasoning. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 25, 169-183.