When her Daily Mail column about Stephen Gately’s death provoked an avalanche of complaints, the disgraced Jan Moir issued a press statement in which she said “it was never [her] intention” to upset people. Defensively speaking, Moir’s choice of words was astute. In judging moral responsibility, we adults focus almost exclusively on intention rather than outcome. Stated starkly, the person who deliberately attempts to kill an innocent, but fails, is judged as more evil than the person who accidentally kills an innocent. Now researchers have a taken a fresh look at how these moral processes develop in children. Classic studies by Piaget and others claimed to show that, in contrast to adults, young children focus on outcomes, not intentions. However, in their new work, Gavin Nobes and colleagues argue that children do focus on intentions, and that Piaget and others failed to take account of the influence of perceived negligence – that is, unintended actions that really ought to have been foreseen.
Dozens of children aged between three and eight years, as well as adults, were presented with short, illustrated stories in which intentions and outcomes were systematically varied, being either positive or negative. To give you an idea, the stories involved bicycle crashes, dropped cups, and games of catch. Crucially, half the participants were told that the key protagonist had taken great care, whereas the other half were told that he or she had been careless – for example, stacking cups in one hand and not paying attention.
When judging the acceptability of a protagonist’s actions and the punishment they deserved, both children and adults were principally influenced by the person’s intention. Intentions to commit bad actions were judged harshly regardless of the outcome. This contradicts Piaget’s classic work, which claimed to show that children focus on outcomes.
Nobes team think the reason for the conflicting results has to do with negligence. They found that children tended to interpret bad outcomes as betraying negligence even when they’d been told that a person had been careful. It’s as if young children haven’t yet fully grasped that accidents can happen even when a person has been careful (the researchers point out this is an issue of the children’s practical, not moral, understanding). Therefore, when a bad outcome was combined with what they assumed was perceived negligence, the children tended to judge a person harshly, just as adults do when they think a person has failed to take due care. In Piaget’s and other earlier work there was no measure of negligence so such patterns would have just appeared as though the children were focusing on outcomes and ignoring intentions.
“The findings indicate that the moral judgements of young children are influenced neither principally by outcome (as Piaget claimed) nor only by outcome and intention (as many subsequent researchers have assumed),” Nobes team concluded. “The intention-outcome dichotomy should be expanded at least to the intention-negligence-outcome trichotomy.”
“Children demonstrate surprisingly sophisticated and differentiated moral reasoning,” they added.
Nobes G, Panagiotaki G, & Pawson C (2009). The influence of negligence, intention, and outcome on children’s moral judgments. Journal of experimental child psychology, 104 (4), 382-97 PMID: 19740483