The Role of Negative Emotions and Attentional Control in Children's, Adolescents' and Adults' Punishment

Lead Research Organisation: University of Plymouth
Department Name: Sch of Psychology

Abstract

People's interpersonal behaviour is regulated by social and moral norms, and violations of these norms are often met with punishment. This project seeks to study what affects children's, adolescents', and adults' punishment of norm violators by combining research in developmental, experimental, and social psychology and experimental economics. We will focus particularly on how negative emotions, such as anger, influence punishment in children, adolescents, and adults. Furthermore, we are interested in how attentional control, that is disengaging attention away from negative information and thoughts, moderates when and how negative emotions affect punishment. Punishment is one mechanism responsible for the emergence and maintenance of moral behaviour. Studying children's, adolescents', and adults' punishment and the role of negative emotions in punishment will help us shed more light on how moral behavior develops over human ontogeny.

We will employ two experimental economic paradigms often used to study punishment, namely the ultimatum game and the third-party punishment game. The ultimatum game assesses second-party punishment, that is punishment by an individual who is a direct victim of the violation of a norm. The third-party punishment game measures whether people are willing to enforce a norm by punishing a norm violator even if they themselves are not affected by the violation. Both games study punishment as reaction to the violation of norms of fair sharing. Participants in all three studies will consist of 8-year-old children, 14-year-old adolescents, and undergraduate students. The influence of attentional control on negative emotion processing and punishment will be assessed in two ways. First, the age groups tested have been shown to differ in their attentional control skills (as measured by a questionnaire) with children showing weaker attentional control than adolescents and adults. Second, attentional control will be manipulated experimentally in adult samples: In a distractor condition, before making a punishment decision, adult participants will be presented with a digit span task for 30 seconds. In a wait condition, participants will have to wait for 30 seconds before making a punishment decision.

We will conduct six interrelated studies to investigate the role of negative emotions and attentional control in the development of punishment. Studies 1a and 1b will investigate (1) whether punishment of unfair behavior in ultimatum and third-party punishment game is associated with an increase in skin conductance responses (a measure of emotional activation) and negative emotional ratings; and (2) whether the relation between emotional reactivity (skin conductance, emotion ratings) and punishment is modulated by attentional control. Studies 2a and 2b will examine (1) whether anger (induced by watching film clips) affects punishment in ultimatum and third-party punishment game; and (2) whether children and participants in a low attentional control condition show higher punishment than adults, adolescents and people in a high attentional control condition. Studies 3a and 3b will assess how induced anger affects third-party punishment versus compensating the victim of a violation. We expect (1) that anger, compared to a neutral mood, will increase third-party punishment and decrease third-party compensation; and (2) that the effect of anger on punishment and compensation will be moderated by attentional control.

Planned Impact

1. Understanding human behaviour:
The proposed research is concerned with the ontogenetic development of punishing behaviour and ultimately deals with the mechanisms that support the emergence of human moral behaviour. This proposal thus directly contributes to one of the ESRC's main strategic objectives: Understanding human behaviour and its relationship to social determinants.

2. Interdisciplinarity:
The proposed project interconnects research in developmental, experimental, and social psychology and experimental economics in a novel way. It combines theories and methods from psychology, economics, and evolutionary theory. In that sense, it promises to advance knowledge in these disciplines.

3. Contribution to policy and practice:
The question of how to promote positive social and moral behaviour and discourage anti-social and aggressive behaviour among the UK's children and youth is one of the re-occurring topics among practitioners and government, particularly after the riots in the summer of 2011. In order to design and provide adequate intervention programs for children and adolescents, it is important to understand the factors that affect and support social and moral behaviour across development. Punishment represents one of the key mechanisms through which social and moral norms are maintained in human societies. The results of this research will therefore have direct relevance for teachers, educators, and program developers and administrators who try to foster positive youth development and well-being.
The notion that attentional control processes are central to the regulation of (negative) emotions paves the way for application to societal challenges. Simple interventions, such as inducing attentional load, temporarily block emotion processing and may thus ameliorate negative emotions before they take full swing. Such attentional load manipulations could be successfully applied in legal decision-making.

Exploitation and Application
Impact on the users identified above will be achieved in a number of ways. Teachers, parents, and charitable organizations can access information about our research via the investigators' websites. A summary of the findings and methods of the proposed project will be featured in one of the newsletters sent out by the Developmental Group at the School of Psychology to schools and key stakeholders in the local community. We will present the findings of the proposed project to parents and teachers at the participating schools, and we anticipate writing at least one non-technical report for non-academic beneficiaries. Additionally, our findings will be disseminated at both nationally (BPS Developmental Section) and internationally (EASP, SRCD) recognized conferences and through six peer-reviewed papers.

Collaboration
The investigators have strong collaborative links to psychological, economic, and interdisciplinary research groups in the UK, Europe, North-America, and Asia. The principle investigator has a proven publication track record in investigating the moral and economic behaviour of children and adolescents with these collaborators. All investigators have a proven track record of publishing their research in high-impact journals in developmental, social, experimental, and psychophysiological areas.

Capability
The principal investigator will serve as project leader and coordinator for the proposed research. All investigators and the research assistant will contribute to the dissemination of results as academic papers, non-academic reports, newsletters, and conferences. Furthermore, research findings will be disseminated through the investigators' wide network of national and international collaborators.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description People's interpersonal behaviour is regulated by social and moral norms. The violation of these norms is often accompanied by negative feelings and punishment. The aim of this project was to investigate in six interrelated studies how altruistic punishment develops over the course of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood and the emotional and cognitive processes underlying punishment. Ultimately, this project aspired to provide a novel understanding of how mechanisms supporting the emergence and maintenance of moral behavior develop over human ontogeny.

Altruistic punishment can has been regarded as costly behaviour by a punisher that sanctions a norm violator. This project drew on experimental economic methods to assess costly punishment, namely the ultimatum game and the third-party punishment game. The ultimatum game studies the costly punishment of the victim of a fairness violation (i.e., second-party punishment); the third-party punishment game measures the costly punishment of a violator by an unaffected third party (i.e., third-party punishment).

In two studies we investigated how integral negative emotions that arise as part of the decision-making situation predicted costly punishment. These negative emotions were assessed through galvanic skin responses (GSR) and explicit emotion ratings. Punishment in the ultimatum game was predicted by both changes in GSR and emotion ratings in children, adolescents, and adults. However, contrary to our predictions, third-party punishment was not associated with negative emotions, but was mainly predicted by the degree of unfairness of the violator's transgression.
In four studies, we further assessed the role of incidental anger on the second- and third-party punishment and third-party compensation. Incidental emotions, which are triggered in one situation and "carry over" and bias behaviours or decisions in other, unrelated situations, can shed light on the emotional and cognitive processes underlying people's decisions. These studies found that participants in an incidental anger condition punished more than participants in a neural condition in both second- and third-party punishment situations, and this effect could be found in all age groups. In third-party compensation situations, in which the third party compensates the victim instead of punishing the violator, angry participants compensated less than those in a neutral condition. In a follow-up study, incidental self-focused anger was indeed associated with decreased third-party compensation, whereas incidental other-focused (empathic) anger was associated with increased third-party compensation. This suggests that the appraisal of incidental emotions is key when third parties decide whether to intervene on behalf of others.

Furthermore, this project investigated whether attentional control processes regulate how negative emotions affect punishment by disengaging attention from negative information and thoughts. Across four studies we showed that loading adults' attention with an activity that interferes with sustained processing of (negative) emotions decreases the effect of negative emotions on punishment. However, when mentioning attentional control skills with questionnaires, the results are less clear-cut, mainly due to the varying reliability of our attentional control measures in the different age groups. We therefore suggest that suggest that attentional control should be manipulated experimentally in future studies that want to assess the relationship between attention and emotion processing.
Exploitation Route The findings of this project could be applied to find solution to more applied, real-world problems. First, many bullying episodes include bullies, victims, but also unaffected bystanders. Understanding what motivates unaffected by standers to act can have important implications for targeting bullying.
Second, studying the role of incidental anger and attention focus might have applied relevance in legal contexts. Third-parties, such as judges or juries, regularly have to make decisions about punishing a perpetrator or compensating the victim of a crime. They are also frequently presented with emotionally arousing materials (e.g., witness or victim statements, crime scene photographs) that have the potential to carry over and bias subsequent judgments. The current research has the potential to inform the legal system in understanding when and how incidental anger affects third-party punishment and compensation, and how to counter the effects of incidental anger.
Sectors Education,Government, Democracy and Justice

 
Description Children, adolescents, and adults often engage in punishment of non-normative behaviour, for example when moral or fairness norms are violated. Evolutionary and economic theories suggest that punishment of moral violations are not just aggressive behaviour but can help in establishing and maintaining cooperation in a society. As such, it is important (i) to investigate factors that increase or decrease punishment across ontogeny; and (ii) based on these findings advice teachers, policy makers, and those working in the criminal justice sector. Besides its academic impacts, the findings of this grant have been communicated to a range of different organizations, most notably those working in the education and culture sector, as well as lay people (adults and children). Concerning the former, the study's findings, most notable the effect of emotions on punishment and how to foster punishment and compensation tendencies, were presented and discussed with the following organizations: The Plymouth Humanists, The British Psychological Society (South-West Branch), The Plymouth Excellence Cluster. Furthermore, teachers, parents, and students engaged with the study's topics through newsletters, presentations at primary- and secondary schools, and showcase events at Plymouth University. The studies and their findings were further communicated through publications aimed at a lay audience in Plymouth Magazine and through a review in the British Psychological Society South West Review.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Education
Impact Types Societal

 
Description ESRC Festival of Social Sciences 2017
Amount £1,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Plymouth 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2017 
End 11/2017
 
Description A talk or presentation, Center for Adaptive Rationality, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Germany 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact 30 postgraduate, undergraduate students and researchers attended a presentation that sparked discussion and plans for future funding and student supervision.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description A talk or presentation, Oxford Brookes University, UK 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact 20 postgraduate, undergraduate students and researchers attended a presentation that sparked discussion and plans for future funding and student supervision.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Communication with local Schools via newsletters 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Several newsletters about the findings and future directions of the research were sent to local Schools
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Communication with local school via newsletter and website 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact As part of our annual newsletter, outcomes of this project were communicated to all primary and secondary schools in Plymouth, East Cornwall and West devon.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Department of Psychology, Liverpool Hope University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Presentation given on research conducted in this project at the Department of Psychology, Liverpool Hope University. Around 40 people (under- and post-graduate students, academic staff) attended.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description ESRC Festival of Social Science, School of Psychology, Plymouth University 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact 70 primary school students and their teachers attended a research day as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science. Pupils engaged with research in Psychology and discussed their new understanding. Attendees reported high satisfaction with the research day,
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Public engagement 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact About 30 members of the public attended a public lecture on moral decision-making and emotions. This was an interactive presentation that sparked a lot of formal and informal discussion.

Information sharing, positive feedback from the audience, further contact by members of the audience after the presentation
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://www.bps.org.uk/networks-and-communities/member-networks/south-west-england-branch
 
Description Public engagement - Plymouth Humanists 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact about 40 members of the public attended a presentation given to the Plymouth Humanists. The presentation was very interactive and sparked a lively discussion.

Information sharing, requests for further involvement
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Visit, Leiden University, NL 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Around 40 undergraduate and postgraduate students and academics attended a visit and presentation by the PI which sparked questions and discussion.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Visit, Manchester University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact 15 students and researchers attended a presentation which sparked discussion, questions, and potential future collaborative activities
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Visit, University of Surrey 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A presentation was given at the Psychology Research Seminars.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016