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Child Dev. 2016 Nov;87(6):1772-1782. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12628.

The Early Emergence of Guilt-Motivated Prosocial Behavior.

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Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and University of Virginia.
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and University of St Andrews.
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology/Duke University.


Guilt serves vital prosocial functions: It motivates transgressors to make amends, thus restoring damaged relationships. Previous developmental research on guilt has not clearly distinguished it from sympathy for a victim or a tendency to repair damage in general. The authors tested 2- and 3-year-old children (N = 62 and 64, respectively) in a 2 × 2 design, varying whether or not a mishap caused harm to someone and whether children themselves caused that mishap. Three-year-olds showed greatest reparative behavior when they had caused the mishap and it caused harm, thus showing a specific effect of guilt. Two-year-olds repaired more whenever harm was caused, no matter by whom, thus showing only an effect of sympathy. Guilt as a distinct motivator of prosocial behavior thus emerges by at least 3 years.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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