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

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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.

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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.

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Author notes

  1. Natacha Mendes and Nikolaus Steinbeis contributed equally to this work.


  1. Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Research Group Neuroanatomy and Connectivity, Leipzig, Germany

    • Natacha Mendes
  2. Department of Social Neuroscience, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig, Germany

    • Nikolaus Steinbeis
    •  & Tania Singer
  3. Institute of Psychology, Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands

    • Nikolaus Steinbeis
  4. Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology, University College London, London, UK

    • Nikolaus Steinbeis
  5. Department of Developmental and Comparative Psychology, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany

    • Nereida Bueno-Guerra
    •  & Josep Call
  6. Department of Psychology and Clinical Psychobiology, University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain

    • Nereida Bueno-Guerra
  7. School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Scotland, UK

    • Josep Call


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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.

Corresponding author

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.