Young Children Believe Intervening In Antisocial Behaviour Is A Universal Duty. Adults Don’t

By Emily Reynolds

When witnessing harmful behaviour, most of us hope for intervention of some kind: if we see someone receiving abuse on public transport, for example, it’s likely we want to see some action taken.

Who we want to intervene in such acts, however, is more divisive. Some believe social norms should be enforced by authorities, whilst others stress that responsibility should be shared amongst us all. An interesting example of this is the discussion around policing, with abolitionists arguing that much of the work done by the police would be better led by communities themselves.

Our politics may inform our stance — and according to a new study in Cognition from Julia Marshall and colleagues at Yale University, so might our age. The team finds that older children and adults tend to see norm enforcement as the responsibility of authorities, while younger children see that duty as universal.

In the first study, a group of 84 four-to-seven-year-olds and 36 adults were presented with a scenario in which an authority figure — a parent or teacher — and an ordinary person witnessed teasing. In one story, someone was teased in a park in front of two witnesses: the transgressor’s mother and someone walking in the park. In the other, set in a school, the teasing was seen by a teacher and by another student in the class. All characters were adults or teenagers.

After seeing the scenarios, both groups were asked questions about how obligated each witness was to do something about the teasing. First, they were asked expectation questions: how likely they felt the authority and peer figures were to intervene. Next were obligation questions, measuring whether the participant felt each figure had a duty to take action.  Finally, forced obligation questions asked which of the two figures was more obligated to act.

Results suggested that adults considered the authority figure more obligated to intervene (in fact, they tended to believe that the other bystander did not have a duty to intervene). Older children showed a similar response. And while younger participants also believed authority figures had the greatest obligation, they felt that peers had more of a duty to intervene than did older children or adults — that is, they seemed to believe obligation was more of a universal duty. Children of all ages also expected authorities to intervene, but as they got older became less sure that peers would do so too.

A second study introduced the idea of punishment. A total of 148 children and 40 adults were shown two sets of stories, which depicted someone being teased in a park or at a school. In one version of the stories, the perpetrator’s parent or a teacher was the only witness; in the other, the witness was a peer. The participants answered the same expectation, obligation and forced obligation questions, this time focused on the duty of the witness to punish the perpetrator (e.g. “Do you think this person … has to get Jessica in trouble for saying something mean?”).

As in the first study, adult participants believed the authority figure was more obligated to punish than the peer. This was also the case for older children — but while four-year-olds also felt authority figures were obligated to help, they again felt that peers also had a duty to step in.

It seems, therefore, that young children have broader beliefs about who is obligated to intervene in unpleasant situations. But this isn’t because they don’t understand the difference in power between authority figures and average onlookers, the team argues. Instead, the authors suggest that expecting or valuing community or peer intervention is universal, but that certain cultures — like that of the United States where this study took place — end up replacing these “default” beliefs with deference to authority.

Future work which looks at the same factors across cultures could clarify how universal these changes are during child development — and what cultural and interpersonal factors lead to such changes.

Developing judgments about peers’ obligation to intervene

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest