Toddlers draw broad negative inferences from wrongdoers' moral violations

Fransisca Ting, Renée Baillargeon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


By 2 y of age, children possess expectations about several different moral principles. Building on these results, we asked whether children who observed a wrongdoer violate a principle would draw negative inferences from this violation about how the wrongdoer was likely to behave in other contexts. In four experiments, 25-mo-old toddlers (n = 152) first saw a wrongdoer harm a protagonist. When toddlers judged the wrongdoer's behavior to violate the principle of ingroup support or harm avoidance, they did not find it unexpected if the wrongdoer next violated the principle of fairness by dividing resources unfairly between two other protagonists (Exps. 2 and 3), but they did find it unexpected if the wrongdoer next acted generously by giving another protagonist most of a resource to be shared between them (Exp. 4). When toddlers did not construe the wrongdoer's harmful behavior as a moral violation, these responses reversed: They found it unexpected if the wrongdoer next acted unfairly (Exp. 1) but not if the wrongdoer next acted generously (Exp. 4). Detecting a moral violation thus lowered toddlers' assessment of the wrongdoer's moral character and brought down their expectations concerning the likelihood that the wrongdoer would perform: 1) obligatory actions required by other principles and 2) supererogatory or virtuous actions not required by the principles. Together, these findings expand our understanding of how young children evaluate others' moral characters, and they reveal how these evaluations, in turn, enable children to form sophisticated expectations about others' behavior in new contexts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2109045118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number39
StatePublished - Sep 28 2021


  • Infancy
  • Moral character
  • Moral violations
  • Obligatory actions
  • Supererogatory actions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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