Aggression and Morality: Links in Early Childhood

Judith G. Smetana, Clinical and Social Psychology, University of Rochester

Research Grant, 2015

Differences in aggressive behavior emerge in early childhood, become more stable with age, and can lead to significant psychological problems, including violence in adulthood. It is, therefore, imperative to understand the factors that contribute to the development of aggressive tendencies early in life. Although aggression involves intentional harm to others, surprisingly little research has examined whether deficits in children’s moral judgments of issues involving harm and unfairness toward others are implicated in children’s aggressive behavior. Our research investigated this issue, taking advantage of recent advances in how researchers define and measure moral judgments and aggression.

Moral development research has shown the importance of distinguishing children’s judgments of moral transgressions, which entail negative consequences for others, from judgments of transgressions involving more arbitrary, agreed-on social-conventional norms (like those pertaining to manners).

Additionally, aggression research has shown that it is not sufficient to consider only whether a child is aggressive but that we must also question why. Some children have difficulty controlling feelings of anger and frustration, leading to a reactive form of aggression that is impulsive, “hot-blooded,” and aimed at responding to perceived threats from others.

Considering callous-unemotional tendencies may prove essential for understanding the role of moral judgments in the development and maintenance of young children's deliberate, calculated aggression.

In contrast, other children exhibit callous-unemotional tendencies, which reflect a lack of empathy, remorse, or concern for others, and use aggression in a proactive, “cold-blooded” manner to obtain rewards and accomplish goals. We tested whether deficits in children’s ability to distinguish between moral and conventional norms was associated with increases in aggression over time and whether this link was stronger for children showing greater callous-unemotional tendencies.

A socioeconomically and ethnically diverse sample of 135 4- to 7-year-olds, 128 of their parents, and 49 teachers participated in the study. Children were told stories about hypothetical, everyday moral and conventional transgressions using an iPad and were asked to make several types of judgments for each story. At the beginning of the study and then nine-months later, parents and teachers rated children’s aggressive behavior, and teachers rated children’s callous-unemotional tendencies. We found that, controlling for gender and age, children who had difficulty differentiating between moral and conventional norms were more aggressive at the beginning of the study and showed greater increases (relative to their peers) in aggression over time, but only if they also possessed callous-unemotional tendencies.

The ability to make distinctively moral judgments did not predict aggression among children who were capable of empathy and concern for others. Our findings suggest that considering callous-unemotional tendencies may prove essential for understanding the role of moral judgments in the development and maintenance of young children’s deliberate, calculated aggression. Further research needs to be directed toward studying the emergence (and amelioration) of these tendencies in early childhood. This developmental period is particularly critical to target, as the opportunities for successful intervention are greater than in later childhood or adolescence, when destructive patterns are more established.

  1. Jambon, M., & Smetana, J. G. (under review). Callous-unemotional traits moderate the association between children's early moral understanding and aggression: A short-term longitudinal study.

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