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Children's Understanding of Moral Emotions

Gertrud Nunner-Winkler and Beate Sodian
Child Development
Vol. 59, No. 5 (Oct., 1988), pp. 1323-1338
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the Society for Research in Child Development
DOI: 10.2307/1130495
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1130495
Page Count: 16
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Children's Understanding of Moral Emotions
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Abstract

4-8-year-old children's attributions of emotion to a story figure who violated a moral rule were studied in a series of experiments. Most 4-year-olds judged a wrongdoer to experience positive emotions, focusing their justifications on the successful outcome of his action, whereas almost all 8-year-olds attributed negative feelings, focusing on the moral value of the wrongdoer's action. A developmental trend from outcome-oriented toward morally oriented emotion attributions was also observed in children's judgments of the feelings of a story character who had resisted temptation. When morally evaluating a wrongdoer, only children above the age of 6 years took emotional reactions into account, judging a "happy" wrongdoer to be worse than a "sorry" one. 4- and 5-year-olds attributed positive emotions to a wrongdoer even if his transgression was severe and if he did not gain any material profit from it. However, they did not expect a person (even an ill-motivated one) to feel good if he or she unintentionally harmed another person or merely observed someone being hurt. These results are discussed in relation to recent research on children's developing conceptions of emotion and on the early development of moral understanding.

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