Crime, But Not Punishment? Children are More Lenient When the 'Spirit of the Law' is Unbroken
36 Pages Posted: 30 Jun 2017
Date Written: June 28, 2017
Making appropriate evaluations of rule-breakers requires not only knowledge of the rule in question, but also an understanding of the intent behind the given rule. In many cases, it can be acceptable to break a rule (the strict “letter of a rule”) if this does not violate the reason the rule was created (the “spirit of the rule”). Making these distinctions is critical for a developed normative understanding of rules, yet there has been little work that has examined when children develop this ability. While there has been a wealth of research on children’s understanding of rules and the intentions of rule-beakers, no one has examined their understanding of the intentions behind rules—the spirit of the rule. Here, we investigate if and when children begin to believe that it is less wrong to violate the letter of a rule if one does not violate the rule’s spirit. Participants (N = 240, 4- to 10-year-olds) were asked to evaluate a rule-breaker either who violated the letter of a rule, but not the spirit or who violated the letter and spirit of a rule. We find that, all children recognized the rule had technically been broken in both cases, but they were much less likely to make negative evaluations of someone for violating a rule if they only broke the letter of the rule, without violating the spirit of the rule. We also find that children increasingly differentiate between violations of the letter of a rule and violations of the spirit of a rule as they mature. We discuss how these studies provide insight into children’s early normative understanding.
Keywords: law and psychology, statutory interpretation, normative reasoning, developmental, children
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