By Sarah Fister Gale

Although parents might sometimes feel otherwise, children are inherently rule followers. Early in life, simple rules like “don’t touch the stove” provide a framework that helps them safely navigate the world.

“Kids are often very literal about rules and the punishment expected for breaking those rules,” said Jessica Bregant (PhD’18). But at some point their understanding of rules and why they exist evolves, and they begin to consider the spirit of the rule in their interpretation of right and wrong, she continued.

This evolution is at the center of research conducted by Bregant, Isabel Wellbery (AB’16), and Assistant Professor of Psychology Alex Shaw.

“I was really interested in the implication of rules in culture and how we come to learn them,” said Wellbery, who was working in Shaw’s lab at the Center for Early Childhood Research at the time.

She brought the idea to Shaw and Bregant, and they worked together to define a research topic as part of her honor’s thesis project. “Before I was able to formulate any research question at all, Jessie took time to explain her body of research and we explored how our interests fit together,” Wellbery says.

The project would explore how children come to understand the spirit of a rule, specifically why it was created, and how that knowledge affects their perspective on whether the rule can be broken and whether a person should be punished for their actions.

With the research topic defined, Wellbery and Bregant, who earned a joint doctorate from Psychology and UChicago’s Booth School of Business, conducted a study of how children evaluate rule-breakers under different scenarios.

“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,” Bregant says. The project explored whether children think it is acceptable to break the letter of the rule if it does not violate the spirt of the rule or why the rule was created. The resulting paper: Crime but not punishment? Children are more lenient toward rule-breaking when the “spirit of the law” is unbroken,” was published in the February 2019 issue of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

To conduct the research, Wellbery and Bregant worked with Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, where they presented 76 children, aged 4-to-10, with two video slideshow stories about a boy named Timmy who violates a rule, then asked them to decide whether what Timmy did was wrong and whether he should be punished.

In the scenario, children were not allowed to take home more than four books from the library. The reasons for that rule were because that is what fits in a child’s backpack and that teachers do not want the books to get lost or dirty. The children in the study learn that Timmy took home six books because he wanted to share two books with a sick friend. In the first scenario, the children are also told that Timmy brought a backpack large enough to hold all six books – thus protecting them from damage (the spirt of the rule), whereas in the second scenario, no mention is made of how the books are protected. Bregant and Wellbery intentionally gave Timmy an altruistic motive – helping a sick friend – to minimize the participants’ moral judgement of Timmy, Bregant said.

The researchers predicted that in both conditions the children would say that Timmy broke the rule, but that they would make different evaluations as to whether Timmy was wrong and whether he should be punished based on whether he broke the spirit of the rule. Their predictions proved accurate.

In the scenario that does not mention Timmy’s backpack, 100 percent of the children said Timmy broke the rule and 100 percent said he should be punished by missing recess. But in the study that mentions the size of his backpack, thus indicating that only the letter of the rule was violated but not the spirit, 93.9 percent of children said he broke the rule, but just 4.1 percent thought he should be punished. While the study found some leniency among older children when the letter of the rule was broken, age had little overall influence on their judgements.

“It shows that kids understand the different between literal rules and intention and that they are capable of exploring that,” Bregant says. She found it interesting that the children were unwilling to excuse Timmy’s decision due to his altruistic motives. “They were happy to enforce the rule even though he was doing something nice,” she says.

Shaw believes the study could shed new insight into how children’s think about rules and why they matter. “We make assumptions that kids are overly focused on the nitty gritty of rules, but this data tells us that by the age of four or five, kids understand that rules are important because of their intention.”

For Shaw, projects like these are an important part of the education journey for his students. “Developing and executing an experiment is a great way to develop theoretical and empirical skills,” he said. “It gives them a sense of what it is like to generate an idea, test it, and see if their intuition was correct.”

Wellbery agrees. “The mentorship that I received from Alex and Jessie was a formative experience for me during my undergraduate studies.”