Children punish third parties to satisfy both consequentialist and retributive motives



Adults punish moral transgressions to satisfy both retributive motives (such as wanting antisocial others to receive their ‘just deserts’) and consequentialist motives (such as teaching transgressors that their behaviour is inappropriate). Here, we investigated whether retributive and consequentialist motives for punishment are present in children approximately between the ages of five and seven. In two preregistered studies (N = 251), children were given the opportunity to punish a transgressor at a cost to themselves. Punishment either exclusively satisfied retributive motives by only inflicting harm on the transgressor, or additionally satisfied consequentialist motives by teaching the transgressor a lesson. We found that children punished when doing so satisfied only retributive motives, and punished considerably more when doing so also satisfied consequentialist motives. Together, these findings provide evidence for the presence of both retributive and consequentialist motives in young children.

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Fig. 1: Communicative versus non-communicative punishment.
Fig. 2: Visualizations of the communicative, non-communicative, and baseline control conditions.
Fig. 3: Percentages of participants who punished depending on condition in Study 1 (N = 113).
Fig. 4: Percentages of participants who punished depending on condition in Study 2 (N = 138).
Fig. 5: Percentages of participants who predicted that the transgressor will not re-offend.

Data availability

All data related to these studies are publicly available on OSF at

Code availability

Most analyses were conducted in SPSS and using freely available packages in the R environment for statistical computing. All syntax and code are available at


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We thank the Crockett Lab and the Mind and Development Lab for their valuable feedback in the design and methodology of the present studies. We also thank A. Buck, A. Gollwitzer, S. Hollander, C. Johnson, E. Mahaffey, S. Minnillo, A. Morra, I. Munday, A. Sacchi, C. Seita and C. Welsh for assistance with the data collection. Finally, we thank the generous and wonderful parents, children and schools who helped us with this project.

Author information




J.M., D.A.Y. and M.J.C. developed the study concept and study design. J.M. collected the data and performed the analyses. J.M., D.A.Y. and M.J.C. drafted the manuscript and provided critical revisions. All authors approved the final version of the manuscript for submission.

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Correspondence to Julia Marshall or Molly J. Crockett.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–16, Supplementary Tables 1–6, Supplementary Methods and Supplementary Results.

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Marshall, J., Yudkin, D.A. & Crockett, M.J. Children punish third parties to satisfy both consequentialist and retributive motives. Nat Hum Behav (2020).

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