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

An Author Correction to this article was published on 28 March 2018

This article has been updated (view changelog)


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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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).

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.


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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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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.

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Correspondence to Nikolaus Steinbeis.

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

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Supplementary Video 1

Experimental procedure — chimpanzees.

Supplementary Video 2

Experimental procedure — children.

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Mendes, N., Steinbeis, N., Bueno-Guerra, N. et al. Preschool children and chimpanzees incur costs to watch punishment of antisocial others. Nat Hum Behav 2, 45–51 (2018).

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