Children and chimpanzees pay to punish antisocial behaviour

Children and chimpanzees pay to punish antisocial behaviour


Six-year-old children and chimpanzees derive pleasure from watching others being punished for antisocial behaviour and are prepared to pay to see it, according to new UCL research.

Until now, it has been unclear when we develop the impulse to penalise uncooperative behaviour and whether this is an exclusively human feature. It is thought that such behaviour may be fundamental to being human and is a useful mechanism for living amicably in communities.

The study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour by researchers from UCL and the Max Planck Institute, Leiden University, University of Barcelona and University of St Andrews, discovered that even six-year-old children feel the need to reprimand antisocial behaviour, and that they are willing to take risks and make an effort to be present when the ’guilty’ one is punished.

"We cannot definitely say that the children and chimpanzees felt spite. However, their behaviour is a clear sign that six-year-old children as well as chimpanzees are eager to observe how uncooperative members of their community are punished," said Dr Nikolaus Steinbeis, co-author of the study (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences and Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences).

Scientists studied the behaviour of 65 children aged between four and six years old during a puppet show where they interacted with friendly and antisocial puppets.

The friendly puppet gave the children their favourite toy back whereas the uncooperative one kept the toy for themselves. A third puppet pretended to hit the other two with a stick to punish them. The young audience could decide whether they wanted to watch the pretend hits by paying with a coin, or if they would prefer to exchange the coin for stickers.

In the case of the friendly puppet, the children largely refused to observe how it suffered. However, in the case of the antisocial puppet, the six-year-old children’s preference was to reject the stickers and spend their coins witnessing the punishment was significant. They even experienced pleasure by watching him suffer, shown in their expressions.  In contrast, the fourand five-year-old children did not show this behaviour.

The scientists observed similar occurrences in chimpanzees. Their desire to penalise antisocial behaviour was studied in the research unit of MPI EVA at Leipzig Zoo with the help of two zookeepers, who also slipped into contrasting roles; social and antisocial. While one regularly fed them, the other took their food away.

In this situation also, another person pretended to beat both zookeepers with a stick. As with the children, a significant number of chimpanzees made an effort to witness the disliked keeper being punished. To do so, they had to open a heavy door to a neighbouring room from where they could witness the scene. As for the friendly zookeeper, they refused this option and even protested strongly when pain was inflicted on them.

"Our results demonstrate that six-year-old children and even chimpanzees want to avenge antisocial behaviour and that they feel an urge to watch it. This is where the evolutionary roots of such behaviour originates, a crucial characteristic to manage living in a community," said co-author Dr Natacha Mendes (Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences).