Article | Published:

Preschool children and chimpanzees incur costs to watch punishment of antisocial others


When misfortune befalls another, humans may feel distress, leading to a motivation to escape. When such misfortune is perceived as justified, however, it may be experienced as rewarding and lead to motivation to witness the misfortune. We explored when in human ontogeny such a motivation emerges and whether the motivation is shared by chimpanzees. Chimpanzees and four- to six-year-old children learned through direct interaction that an agent was either prosocial or antisocial and later saw each agent’s punishment. They were given the option to invest physical effort (chimpanzees) or monetary units (children) to continue watching. Chimpanzees and six-year-olds showed a preference for watching punishment of the antisocial agent. An additional control experiment in chimpanzees suggests that these results cannot be attributed to more generic factors such as scene coherence or informational value seeking. This indicates that both six-year-olds and chimpanzees have a motivation to watch deserved punishment enacted.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

A correction to this article is available online at

Change history

  • 28 March 2018

    In the version of this Article originally published, in Fig. 2c the hatching indicating antisocial behaviour was on the wrong data bars. This has now been corrected in the Article.


  1. 1.

    Nowak, M. A. Five rules for the evolution of cooperation. Science 314, 1560–1563 (2006).

  2. 2.

    Nowak, M. A. & Sigmund, K. Evolution of indirect reciprocity. Nature 437, 1291–1298 (2005).

  3. 3.

    Boyd, R., Gintis, H., Bowles, S. & Richerson, P. J. The evolution of altruistic punishment. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 100, 3531–3535 (2003).

  4. 4.

    Fehr, E. & Gächter, S. Altruistic punishment in humans. Nature 415, 137–140 (2002).

  5. 5.

    Henrich, N. & Henrich, J. P. Why Humans Cooperate: A Cultural and Evolutionary Explanation (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2007).

  6. 6.

    Henrich, J. & Boyd, R. Why people punish defectors: weak conformist transmission can stabilize costly enforcement of norms in cooperative dilemmas. J. Theor. Biol. 208, 79–89 (2001).

  7. 7.

    Clutton-Brock, T. H. & Parker, G. A. Punishment in animal societies. Nature 373, 209–216 (1995).

  8. 8.

    Hauser, M. D. Costs of deception: cheaters are punished in rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta). Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 89, 12137–12139 (1992).

  9. 9.

    De Quervain, D. J., Fischbacher, U., Treyer, V. & Schellhammer, M. The neural basis of altruistic punishment. Science 305, 1254–1258 (2004).

  10. 10.

    Hein, G., Silani, G., Preuschoff, K., Batson, C. D. & Singer, T. Neural responses to ingroup and outgroup members’ suffering predict individual differences in costly helping. Neuron 68, 149–160 (2010).

  11. 11.

    Singer, T. et al. Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others. Nature 439, 466–469 (2006).

  12. 12.

    Batson, C. D. The Altruism Question: Toward a Social-Psychological Answer (Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, 1991).

  13. 13.

    Singer, T. et al. Empathy for pain involves the affective but not sensory components of pain. Science 303, 1157–1162 (2004).

  14. 14.

    Batson, C. D., Duncan, B. D., Ackerman, P., Buckley, T. & Birch, K. Is empathic emotion a source of altruistic motivation? J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 40, 290–302 (1981).

  15. 15.

    Cools, A. K., Van Hout, A. J. M. & Nelissen, M. H. Canine reconciliation and third‐party‐initiated postconflict affiliation: do peacemaking social mechanisms in dogs rival those of higher primates? Ethology 114, 53–63 (2008).

  16. 16.

    Palagi, E. & Cordoni, G. Postconflict third-party affiliation in Canis lupus: do wolves share similarities with the great apes? Animal Behav. 78, 979–986 (2009).

  17. 17.

    Seed, A. M., Clayton, N. S. & Emery, N. J. Postconflict third-party affiliation in rooks, Corvus frugilegus. Current Biol. 17, 152–158 (2007).

  18. 18.

    Byrne, R. et al. Do elephants show empathy? J. Conscious. Stud. 15, 204–225 (2008).

  19. 19.

    Clay, Z. & de Waal, F. B. Bonobos respond to distress in others: consolation across the age spectrum. PLoS One 8, e55206 (2013).

  20. 20.

    Romero, T. & de Waal, F. Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) consolation: third-party identity as a window on possible function. J. Comp. Psychol. 124, 278 (2010).

  21. 21.

    Mallavarapu, S., Stoinski, T., Bloomsmith, M. & Maple, T. Postconflict behavior in captive western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla). Am. J. Primatol. 68, 789–801 (2006).

  22. 22.

    Langford, D. J. et al. Social modulation of pain as evidence for empathy in mice. Science 312, 1967–1970 (2006).

  23. 23.

    Bartal, I. B.-A., Decety, J. & Mason, P. Empathy and pro-social behavior in rats. Science 334, 1427–1430 (2011).

  24. 24.

    Burkett, J. P. et al. Oxytocin-dependent consolation behavior in rodents. Science 351, 375–378 (2016).

  25. 25.

    Hamlin, J. K., Wynn, K. & Bloom, P. Social evaluation by preverbal infants. Nature 450, 557–559 (2007).

  26. 26.

    Hamlin, J. K. & Wynn, K. Young infants prefer prosocial to antisocial others. Cogn. Dev. 26, 30–39 (2011).

  27. 27.

    Hamlin, J. K., Wynn, K., Bloom, P. & Mahajan, N. How infants and toddlers react to antisocial others. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 19931–19936 (2011).

  28. 28.

    Schulz, K., Rudolph, A., Tscharaktschiew, N. & Rudolph, U. Daniel has fallen into a muddy puddle—Schadenfreude or sympathy? Br. J. Dev. Psychol. 31, 363–378 (2013).

  29. 29.

    Shamay-Tsoory, S. G., Ahronberg-Kirschenbaum, D. & Bauminger-Zviely, N. There is no joy like malicious joy: Schadenfreude in young children. PloS ONE 9, e100233 (2014).

  30. 30.

    Tisak, M. S. Preschool children’s judgments of moral and personal events involving physical harm and property damage. Merrill-Palmer Q. 39, 375–390 (1993).

  31. 31.

    Jordan, J. J., McAuliffe, K. & Warneken, F. Development of in-group favoritism in children’s third-party punishment of selfishness. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 12710–12715 (2014).

  32. 32.

    De Waal, F. B. Good Natured (Harvard Univ. Press, London, 1996).

  33. 33.

    De Waal, F. B. & Luttrell, L. M. Mechanisms of social reciprocity in three primate species: symmetrical relationship characteristics or cognition? Ethol. Sociobiol. 9, 101–118 (1988).

  34. 34.

    Jensen, K., Call, J. & Tomasello, M. Chimpanzees are rational maximizers in an ultimatum game. Science 318, 107–109 (2007).

  35. 35.

    Suchak, M. et al. How chimpanzees cooperate in a competitive world. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 10215–10220 (2016).

  36. 36.

    Herrmann, E., Keupp, S., Hare, B., Vaish, A. & Tomasello, M. Direct and indirect reputation formation in nonhuman great apes (Pan paniscus, Pan troglodytes, Gorilla gorilla, Pongo pygmaeus) and human children (Homo sapiens). J. Comp. Psychol. 127, 63–75 (2013).

  37. 37.

    Russell, Y. I., Call, J. & Dunbar, R. I. Image scoring in great apes. Behav. Processes 78, 108–111 (2008).

  38. 38.

    Jensen, K., Call, J. & Tomasello, M. Chimpanzees are vengeful but not spiteful. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 13046–13050 (2007).

  39. 39.

    Matsusaka, T. When does play panting occur during social play in wild chimpanzees? Primates 45, 221–229 (2004).

  40. 40.

    Fabes, R. A., Eisenberg, N. & Eisenbud, L. Behavioral and physiological correlates of children’s reactions to others in distress. Dev. Psychol. 29, 655–663 (1993).

  41. 41.

    Eisenberg, N. et al. The relations of children’s dispositional empathy-related responding to their emotionality, regulation, and social functioning. Dev. Psychol. 32, 195–209 (1996).

  42. 42.

    Valiente, C. et al. Prediction of children’s empathy-related responding from their effortful control and parents’ expressivity. Dev. Psychol. 40, 911–926 (2004).

  43. 43.

    Nishida, T., Zamma, K., Matsusaka, T., Inaba, A. & McGrew, W. C. Chimpanzee Behavior in the Wild: An Audio-Visual Encyclopedia (Springer Science & Business Media, Tokyo, 2010).

  44. 44.

    Goodall, J. The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior (Belknap, Cambridge, MA, 1986).

  45. 45.

    Riedl, K., Jensen, K., Call, J. & Tomasello, M. No third-party punishment in chimpanzees. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 14824–14829 (2012).

  46. 46.

    Anderson, J. R., Takimoto, A., Kuroshima, H. & Fujita, K. Capuchin monkeys judge third-party reciprocity. Cognition 127, 140–146 (2013).

  47. 47.

    Smith, R. H. et al. Envy and Schadenfreude. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 22, 158–168 (1996).

  48. 48.

    Jordan, J. J., McAuliffe, K. & Warneken, F. Development of in-group favoritism in children’s third-party punishment of selfishness. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 12710–12715 (2014).

  49. 49.

    Steinbeis, N. & Singer, T. The effects of social comparison on social emotions and behavior during childhood: the ontogeny of envy and Schadenfreude predicts developmental changes in equity-related decisions. J. Exp. Child Psychol. 115, 198–209 (2013).

  50. 50.

    McAuliffe, K., Jordan, J. J. & Warneken, F. Costly third-party punishment in young children. Cognition 134, 1–10 (2015).

  51. 51.

    Engelmann, J. M., Over, H., Herrmann, E. & Tomasello, M. Young children care more about their reputation with ingroup members and potential reciprocators. Dev. Sci. 16, 952–958 (2013).

  52. 52.

    Blake, P. R., Piovesan, M., Montinari, N., Warneken, F. & Gino, F. Prosocial norms in the classroom: the role of self-regulation in following norms of giving. J. Econ. Behav. Organ. 115, 18–29 (2015).

  53. 53.

    Smith, C. E., Blake, P. R. & Harris, P. L. I should but I won’t: why young children endorse norms of fair sharing but do not follow them. PloS ONE 8, e59510 (2013).

  54. 54.

    Dunfield, K., Kuhlmeier, V. A., O’Connell, L. & Kelley, E. Examining the diversity of prosocial behavior: helping, sharing, and comforting in infancy. Infancy 16, 227–247 (2011).

  55. 55.

    Salamone, J. D., Correa, M., Farrar, A. & Mingote, S. M. Effort-related functions of nucleus accumbens dopamine and associated forebrain circuits. Psychopharmacology 191, 461–482 (2007).

  56. 56.

    Grossbard, C. L. & Mazur, J. E. A comparison of delays and ratio requirements in self-control choice. J. Exp. Anal. Behav. 45, 305–315 (1986).

  57. 57.

    Beran, M. J. & Evans, T. A. Delay of gratification by chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) in working and waiting situations. Behav. Processes 80, 177–181 (2009).

  58. 58.

    Eisenberg, N. et al. The relations of emotionality and regulation to dispositional and situational empathy-related responding. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 66, 776–797 (1994).

  59. 59.

    Vaish, A., Carpenter, M. & Tomasello, M. Young children selectively avoid helping people with harmful intentions. Child Dev. 81, 1661–1669 (2010).

  60. 60.

    Custance, D. M., Whiten, A. & Bard, K. A. Can young chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) imitate arbitrary actions? Hayes & Hayes (1952) revisited. Behaviour 132, 837–859 (1995).

  61. 61.

    Whiten, A., Custance, D. M., Gomez, J.-C., Teixidor, P. & Bard, K. A. Imitative learning of artificial fruit processing in children (Homo sapiens) and chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). J. Comp. Psychol. 110, 3–14 (1996).

  62. 62.

    Call, J., Hare, B., Carpenter, M. & Tomasello, M. ‘Unwilling’versus ‘unable’: chimpanzees’ understanding of human intentional action. Dev. Sci. 7, 488–498 (2004).

  63. 63.

    Hanus, D., Mendes, N., Tennie, C. & Call, J. Comparing the performances of apes (Gorilla gorilla, Pan troglodytes, Pongo pygmaeus) and human children (Homo sapiens) in the floating peanut task. PloS ONE 6, e19555 (2011).

  64. 64.

    Dunfield, K. A. & Kuhlmeier, V. A. Intention-mediated selective helping in infancy. Psychol. Sci. 21, 523–527 (2010).

Download references


We are grateful to M. Tomasello for early input into the study design and to M. Allritz, V. Ehrich, K. Esau, E. Felsche, J. Grossmann, S. Hunger, S. Lorenz, J. Steinhardt, K. Schumann, K. Waldherr and K. Wenig for helping with the training phase and data collection with the chimpanzees at the Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Centre; to Y. Hejja-Brichard and K. Schumann for analysing the chimpanzee vocalizations, K. Schumann for analysing part of the chimpanzee behavioural data, M. Neuschulz and A. Hutschenreiter for inter-rater reliability coding of the chimpanzee data, and to C. Brenner, K. Mueller, C. Hoecker and J. Buergel for the data collection with the children. We thank T. Gruber, C. Crockford and A. Kalan for help in identifying some of the chimpanzee vocalizations, A. Kalan for help with the software Avisoft and Praat, H. Grunert and R. Pieszek for their help in constructing the experimental apparatus, and the zookeepers at the Leipzig Zoo for their help with the chimpanzees. Salaries of N.S., N.M. and T.S., as well as testing of the children, were supported by a Max Planck budget granted to T.S. as director of the Department of Social Neuroscience. N.S. was supported by the European Research Council (European Research Council (ERC) grant agreement no. 715282, project DEVBRAINTRAIN), as well as a Jacobs Research Fellowship. J.C. was supported in part by the ERC (grant agreement no. 609819, project SOMICS). N.B.-G. was supported by an FPU scholarship from the Spanish Ministry of Education (ref. FPU12/00409). With the exception of the Max Planck Society, none of the funders played a role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

N.M., N.S., J.C. and T.S. conceived and designed the experiments: N.B.-G., N.M. and N.S. performed the experiments. N.M. and N.S. analysed the data. N.B.-G., N.M., N.S., T.S. and J.C. interpreted data and wrote the paper. Funding was provided by J.C. and T.S.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Nikolaus Steinbeis.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Table 1, Supplementary Figure 1, Supplementary Methods, and Supplementary References 1–3.

  2. Life Sciences Reporting Summary

  3. Supplementary Video 1

    Experimental procedure — chimpanzees.

  4. Supplementary Video 2

    Experimental procedure — children.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Further reading

Fig. 1: Experimental design for chimpanzees and children.
Fig. 2: Behavioural data and emotional indicators for chimpanzees (Study 1; N = 17) and children (Study 2; N = 65).
Fig. 3: Behavioural data and emotional indicators for chimpanzees in Study 3 (N = 14).