Can punishments change a character?


  • Children have more positive views of punishment than parents.
  • For children, punishment is used to bring out the best in a person, while adults think the opposite.

When questioning children, the punishments can have two virtues: on the one hand, they are generally more optimistic than adults, which causes them to consider that the character of people improves after a punishment. Yet they are also more likely than adults to think that other people’s characters are immutable, so they are less likely to view punishment as having an impact on moral growth.

Researchers at Columbia University (United States) looked at the benefits that punishment could have, in order to determine whether it changed anything in people’s behavior, or even if they learned from their mistakes. The results of their study were published on January 19, 2021 in the journal Child Development.

Differences in perception according to age

To figure this out, the researchers interviewed 94 children aged six to eight and 94 adults aged 18 to 52. Both groups received descriptions of people who went to jail because they broke the law or people who went on business. The moral descriptions of these people were either good (“good guys”) or bad (“bad guys”).

Participants from both age groups were asked to rate the moral character of individuals using a five-point scale. This assessment was done at the start of incarceration / travel and after incarceration / travel. The results showed that children, but not adults, reported that “average” individuals became “nicer” after a particularly severe form of punishment (incarceration). On the other hand, unlike children, adults found that “nice” individuals became less “nice” after incarceration.

According to the testimonies of children interviewed for this study by James Dunlea, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University, “punishments cause positive moral changes in ‘wicked’ people. Unlike children, adults expect the positive qualities of ‘nice’ individuals to deteriorate after punishment.

The natural optimism of children

In a second experiment, carried out this time only with 77 children aged six to eight, the researchers presented pairs of individuals, who had all committed the same offense. In each pair, one of the people received a relatively severe punishment (going to jail after committing a transgression) while the other individual was described as receiving a relatively less severe punishment (going to time out after committing a transgression). transgression). Afterwards, the children had to judge the severity of the punishment.

Although the children were aware that both people had committed the same offense and that one of the punishments was more severe than the other, they still believed that “average” individuals became “nicer” regardless of type. of punishment. “These results suggest that with age, people in the United States become increasingly pessimistic about the impact of punishments on moral character., says Larisa Heiphetz, co-author and assistant professor in the psychology department at Columbia University. Our work suggests that these adults may believe that redemption is not for everyone, or at least that a specific form of severe punishment (incarceration) is not the way to go. ”


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