26 September 2019

Is revenge more important than gratitude to kids?

A Boston University study suggests that in children, retribution develops before gratitude.

Why is it that gratitude has to be taught, but it’s instinctive for kids to punish someone for wronging them? And if it’s reflexive behaviour to do this, would it not similarly follow that you’d reward someone for helping you? Turns out, gratitude is more than just manners, as this HuffPost article notes – it's a mindset and lifestyle. 

Peter Blake, a Boston University associate professor of psychological and brain sciences and director of BU’s Social Development and Learning Lab set out to understand how, and when, paying back a kindness to someone develops in young children. 

The findings, published in Psychological Science, suggest that for children, retribution develops before gratitude.

“The idea that you pay back specifically the person who helped you is a really important piece for the evolution of cooperation,” said Blake. “It’s what sets up a relationship that will hold over the long term.”

The sticker game

A total of 330 children between the ages of four and eight were recruited to participate in a series of experiments examining reciprocity.

Each trial consisted of a child playing a computer game with four other “players”. In reality, on-screen animal cartoon avatars were controlled by the researchers. All four players received a sticker, but the child received none.

The game dictated that the other players may either keep their stickers or give the child their sticker. One player – randomly selected from Blake’s team – “chose” to give a sticker to the child. The screen then reset, with the reverse happening – the child received the sticker, and had the opportunity to give it to a player of their choice.

During the second phase of the game, one of the players then stole a sticker from the child, and the child got the chance to steal a sticker from another player.

Ready for retaliation

The researchers found that the kids easily retaliated against the sticker thieves, and even targeted them when it was time to take back a sticker. But the kids showed no propensity to reward their benefactors when they were instructed to give away a sticker. Since they had no trouble punishing the thieves, why didn’t they feel compelled to repay a kind deed, then?

“We were really puzzled by it,” said Blake. In fact, after more trials, the researchers simply couldn’t get the kids to reciprocate kindness. 

Are kids hardwired for revenge?

Blake doesn’t believe so. “Kids aren’t out to get people,” he said. Instead, he believes their behaviour is more of a defensive move to protect themselves from future victimisation.

“They’re sending a signal to the person, but also to the broader world that ‘I’m not a sucker.’”

He also cites prior research that shows young children expect others to be kind to them, so antagonistic behaviour may register more strongly with them, and even prompt a more urgent response.

The benefit of a gratitude story

The solution is simple: if you want to instil gratitude in your kids, tell them a bedtime gratitude story. The tactic was done during the final trial of the experiment, and it worked – children were more likely to reciprocate to their benefactors after hearing the story. It was suggested by Jingshi Hu, an undergraduate researcher working in Blake’s lab.

Gratitude has also been shown to be healthy for us, and benefits both adults and kids alike, previous research indicates. A study conducted by Dr Robert A. Emmons of the University of California shows that cultivating gratitude can increase happiness levels by around 25%.

Still not convinced? It can also lead to individuals living happier, more satisfied lives and enjoy increased levels of self-esteem and empathy. Another study shows that kids who practise gratitude also have more positive attitudes toward school and family. 

Blake stressed that parents needn’t be too concerned by the findings, though. “As far as evolution goes, it’s definitely critical that you stand up for yourself,” he said.

Image: iStock


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