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Humans depend greatly on our cooperative relationships. Thus, when our relationships are damaged by transgressions, they need to be repaired. Such repair requires that the transgressor show remorse and the victim forgive. Previous research demonstrates that as transgressors, young children show remorse and attempt to repair the harm they caused. However, it remains unclear when children, as victims, forgive remorseful transgressors. In Study 1, 5‐, but not 4‐year‐olds, (n = 20 each) were more forgiving of a remorseful transgressor (who did not explicitly apologize) than an unremorseful transgressor. In Study 2, 4‐year‐olds (n = 20) were more forgiving of an apologetic than unapologetic transgressor. Thus, from early in ontogeny, humans are motivated to repair damaged relationships and thus uphold cooperation.
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The Emergence of Forgiveness in Young Children
Janine Oostenbroek and Amrisha Vaish
The University of Virginia
Humans depend greatly on our cooperative relationships. Thus, when our relationships are damaged by
transgressions, they need to be repaired. Such repair requires that the transgressor show remorse and the vic-
tim forgive. Previous research demonstrates that as transgressors, young children show remorse and attempt
to repair the harm they caused. However, it remains unclear when children, as victims, forgive remorseful
transgressors. In Study 1, 5-, but not 4-year-olds, (n=20 each) were more forgiving of a remorseful transgres-
sor (who did not explicitly apologize) than an unremorseful transgressor. In Study 2, 4-year-olds (n=20) were
more forgiving of an apologetic than unapologetic transgressor. Thus, from early in ontogeny, humans are
motivated to repair damaged relationships and thus uphold cooperation.
Humans are extremely social beings, and we rely
heavily on our cooperative relationships for our
survival and to succeed in achieving our individual
and communal goals (Tomasello, Melis, Tennie,
Wyman, & Herrmann, 2012). Thus, when transgres-
sions occur and damage our relationships, it is vital
that we repair those relationships in order to con-
tinue beneting from group living and cooperation.
So how do we repair our ruptured cooperative
relationships? One key to reparation is the expres-
sion of guilt and remorse by the transgressor.
Adults, and even young children, experience guilt
after a transgression and attempt to repair harm
they have caused and restore the damaged relation-
ship (Kochanska, Gross, Lin, & Nichols, 2002;
Vaish, Carpenter, & Tomasello, 2016). However,
guilt and remorse only represent the transgressors
half of the repair process. The other half is forgive-
ness by the victim (McCullough, 2008; Worthington,
2010). Forgiveness reestablishes a victims positive
feelings toward transgressors, fosters reconciliation,
and allows transgressors to reenter mutually bene-
cial relationships, thus helping to maintain coopera-
tion (McCullough, 2008). Yet we know strikingly
little about the ontogenetic emergence of forgive-
ness. The current research was designed to ll this
gap in our knowledge.
Perhaps the most prominent elicitor of forgive-
ness is transgressorsremorse (Ohbuchi, Kameda, &
Agarie, 1989; Petrucci, 2002). Research with adults
shows that transgressorsremorse signals to the vic-
tim that the transgressor himself is also suffering,
which evokes sympathy, concern, and forgiveness
and thus reduces the likelihood of punishment
(Keltner & Anderson, 2000; Leary, Landel, & Patton,
1996). Expressing remorse also serves as a promise
of more acceptable behavior in the future (Castel-
franchi & Poggi, 1990; Keltner, Young, & Buswell,
1997) and signals the transgressors intention of
refraining from harming the victim again (McCul-
lough, Worthington, & Rachal, 1997). Remorse is
thus extremely effective in eliciting forgiveness and
therefore promoting relationship repair in adults.
The literature remains unclear, however, as to
when children respond positively to transgressors
remorse. Previous studies have shown that after
hearing stories in which one individual transgresses
against another, 4- to 8-year-old children blame and
punish transgressors less, and forgive and like them
more, if they apologized than if they did not apolo-
gize (e.g., Darby & Schlenker, 1982, 1989; Smith,
Chen, & Harris, 2010). Furthermore, children of this
age judge situations in which a transgressor apolo-
gized as better and more just than ones in which
the transgressor was unapologetic (Irwin & Moore,
1971; Wellman, Larkey, & Somerville, 1979), and
they attribute improved feelings to a victim who
received an apology (Smith et al., 2010).
We thank all the families for their participation; Shannon
Savell, Mimi Nguyen, and Shannon McGinnis for assistance with
testing; and Ebony Logan for coding. This research was
supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to
Amrisha Vaish (Grant #55437).
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Amrisha Vaish, Department of Psychology, University of Vir-
ginia, PO Box 400400, Charlottesville, VA 22904. Electronic mail
may be sent to vaish@virginia.edu.
©2018 Society for Research in Child Development
All rights reserved. 0009-3920/2018/xxxx-xxxx
DOI: 10.1111/cdev.13069
Child Development, xxxx 2018, Volume 00, Number 0, Pages 118
In nearly all prior work, however, children were
bystanders to the transgressions and were thus
evaluating transgressorsresponses from an obser-
vers perspective. Although such third-party evalua-
tions are undoubtedly important, they do not
constitute true forgiveness. In part, this is because
forgiveness is by denition felt and granted by a
hurt party rather than a bystander. That is, victims
are unique in their ability to forgive and thus to
allow relationships to be repaired (see Zitek, Jor-
dan, Monin, & Leach, 2010). Additionally, when
children are bystanders and are not personally
affected by the transgressions, their feelings of sad-
ness or anger (which they must overcome in order
to forgive) are likely not elicited nearly as strongly
as when they are the victims of transgressions. In
other words, as bystanders, they can likely evaluate
and consider transgressorsresponses more coolly
(cold cognition,see Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999),
whereas as victims, their strong emotions might
make it more challenging for them to do so (hot
cognition). This could lead to a more protracted
development of forgiveness in rst- than third-party
situations. Indeed, there is evidence of such a dis-
connect from other domains of moral development.
For example, whereas young children endorse
norms of sharing and expect others to share
equally, they themselves do not share equally until
78 years of age (Smith, Blake, & Harris, 2013).
It is therefore critical to examine childrens for-
giveness when they themselves are within the
threatened relationship. Only two studies to date
have used this approach. In one study, 4- to 7-year-
old children suffered minor disappointment when
they did not receive the stickers that they expected
to receive from another child. Children then
received either a note of apology from the other
child or a note without an apology. Children
reported feeling better and rated the other child as
being more remorseful and nicer if the other child
had sent an apologetic note versus a nonapologetic
note (Smith & Harris, 2012). This study provided
the rst evidence that as early as 4 years of age,
children forgive apologetic transgressors. In another
study, Drell and Jaswal (2016) used a live paradigm
to investigate childrens responses to a transgres-
sors remorse. Six- and 7-year-olds painstakingly
built a tower that was then knocked over by a
transgressor. The transgressor either provided an
apology, offered restitution, or did nothing. Chil-
dren shared more stickers with a transgressor who
apologized or offered restitution than with one who
did nothing. Taken together, these two studies sug-
gest that preschool and early school-age children
may well be capable of forgiving remorseful trans-
gressors.
However, from an early age, children are fre-
quently told by their caregivers and teachers to
apologize (see Smith, Noh, Rizzo, & Harris, 2017),
even when they might not feel sorry. As a result,
childrens evaluations of transgressors who say they
are sorry or who are described as having apolo-
gized might be based on hearing key words or
phrases (e.g., Im sorry), which they have learned
are the normative responses after one has commit-
ted a transgression (Vaish, Carpenter, & Tomasello,
2011). Thus, to assess the development of forgive-
ness in response to transgressorsremorse rather
than apologies specically, it is imperative to study
childrens responses to remorse in the absence of
explicit apologies.
Accordingly, one recent study investigated chil-
drens responses to a transgressor who showed
remorse without explicitly apologizing (Vaish et al.,
2011). Using a forced-choice paradigm, this study
revealed that 5-year-old children positively evalu-
ated the remorseful transgressor more than the
unremorseful transgressor, preferred the remorseful
transgressor, and distributed more resources to the
remorseful transgressor. Four-year-olds, on the
other hand, did not show any of these effects. In
Vaish et al.s (2011) Study 2, when the transgres-
sors remorse was accompanied by explicit apolo-
gies (Im sorry. I apologize.), 4-year-olds also
positively evaluated, preferred, and distributed
more resources to the remorseful transgressor.
Therefore, by 5 years of age, children seem to truly
appreciate the implications ofand thus respond
positively toa transgressors expression of
remorse; a year earlier, children show similar
appreciation for more conventional cues of remorse
such as explicit apologies.
Although Vaish et al.s (2011) ndings shed light
on childrens responses to transgressorsremorse in
the absence of apologies, their studies, like most
prior work, also placed children in the role of
bystander rather than victim. Their results thus can-
not be assumed to generalize to situations that
arguably matter most to restoring relationships
when children are themselves the victims of trans-
gressionsand thus cannot be assumed to reect
childrens propensity for forgiveness.
The present studies were designed to examine
the developmental emergence of forgiveness. We
asked: When do children, as the victims of trans-
gressions, begin to forgive remorseful transgressors?
In Study 1, we assessed childrens responses to
remorse without explicit apologies. Specically,
2 Oostenbroek and Vaish
4- and 5-year-olds experienced a minor harm caused
by two transgressors. One transgressor showed
remorse (without explicitly apologizing) and the
other was unremorseful. Children were asked about
their evaluations of and preferences for the two
transgressors, and they distributed resources between
the transgressors. Furthermore, we were interested to
see if children form a generalized positive evaluation
of the remorseful transgressor (i.e., think that she is a
generally positive, prosocial individual) and a gener-
alized negative evaluation of the unremorseful trans-
gressor (i.e., think that she is a generally negative,
unhelpful individual).
On the basis of Vaish et al. (2011), we expected
that by 5 years, but not by 4 years, children would
be more forgiving of the remorseful transgressor,
operationalized as preferring her, evaluating her
more positively, making more positive generaliza-
tions about her, and giving her more resources than
the unremorseful transgressor (McCullough, 2008).
However, given that children were themselves the
victims and would thus be far more affected by the
transgression than as observers, it was possible that
the 5-year-olds in our study would not respond
positively to the remorseful transgressor as robustly
as the 5-year-olds in Vaish et al.s third-party sce-
narios did. We also asked children to provide justi-
cations for their evaluations, as these may be
useful in revealing which aspects of the situations
children use to make their evaluations. In Study 2,
we examined 4-year-old childrens responses to
transgressors who explicitly apologized versus did
not apologize. Based on Vaish et al. (2011) and
Smith and Harris (2012), we predicted that 4-year-
olds would be more forgiving of a transgressor
who explicitly apologized than one who did not.
Study 1
Method
Participants
Twenty 4-year-olds (M=52;4, i.e., 52 months
and 4 days, SD =2;29; range =48;357;19; 10 girls)
and 20 5-year-olds (M=65;2; SD =3;8;
range =60;9 days to 69;13; 10 girls) were included
in the study. Four additional 4-year-old children
were tested but excluded due to unwillingness to
participate (n=3) or not understanding sufcient
English (n=1). Participants were recruited from a
medium-sized mid-Atlantic university town,
through the institutions database of families inter-
ested in participating in child development
research. Data were collected between October 2016
and February 2017. Of the families that provided
information about race (n=38) and education
(n=40), 92.1% of the parents were Caucasian, and
95% of the parents were at least college educated.
Materials and Setting
Materials included paper and crayons, three
small cardboard boxes, and three cloth owers.
Children were tested individually in a quiet room
within the laboratory, equipped with a rectangular
table, four chairs, and two video cameras on tri-
pods. Three adults conducted the study: one as
moderator and the other two as actresses.
Procedure
After initial warm-up games with the child, the
moderator (M) led the child and the two actresses
(Anna and Kelly) into the testing room and invited
them to sit around the table. The child sat at one
end of the table and the two actresses sat on either
side of the child, across from one another. On the
table in front of each of them was a sheet of paper.
In front of the childs seat were three boxesone
each for Anna and Kelly and one for the child. The
boxes for Anna and Kelly contained an individual
photograph of themselves (the photographs fea-
tured each actress with a neutral facial expression
looking directly at the camera), whereas the box for
the child had a cartoon picture of either a boy or
girl (matched to the participants gender) inside the
box. Each box contained three crayons. M dis-
tributed the boxes and then asked each of them
what they would like to draw. If the child asked
what he or she should draw, M said, You can
draw whatever you like.M then explained that
whoever drew the best picture would win a special
prize.
Then, M said she needed to do some work and
sat out of sight of the child, leaving the child, Anna,
and Kelly to draw their pictures. After they com-
pleted their pictures, Anna and Kelly admired each
others pictures and showed their pictures to the
child. Both actresses then exclaimed that they
would like to look at the childs picture, simultane-
ously picked up the childs picture, and each held
one end of the picture while admiring it.
The accident then occurred when Anna and
Kelly tried to return the picture to the child, as in
that moment, each actress simultaneously pulled
the picture in her own direction, thus accidentally
tearing the picture (note that the picture did not
Forgiveness in Young Children 3
completely tear in half). Both actresses paused
briey while still holding the childs picture and
looking neutrally at it, and then simultaneously
placed the torn picture in front of the child.
The actressessubsequent reactions were based
closely on Vaish et al. (2011). Specically, one of the
actresses now looked remorseful and concerned, and
remorsefully said, Oh, Ive torn your picture. I
didnt want that to happen. Its my fault.While
speaking, she alternated her gaze between the child
and the torn picture. Then, the other actress
expressed no remorse but instead looked neutral and
said in a neutral tone of voice, Hmm, Ive torn your
picture. Hmph [shrugging shoulders], I dont care,
while alternating her gaze between the child and the
torn picture. Note that the unremorseful transgressor
was not aggressive or negative in any way; rather,
she was simply neutral about the transgression.
Next, M, seemingly without noticing the pictures
on the table, requested Anna and Kelly to tidy up
their thingsoutside the room. The actresses left the
room. M then noticedthe torn picture and
expressed mild sympathy, saying, Oh, your pic-
ture.She then asked the rst comprehension ques-
tion: What happened?This question was designed
to ensure that children had comprehended that (a)
their own picture was torn, and (b) the two actresses
tore it. Thus, if children provided a complete answer
such as, Anna and Kelly tore my picture,M moved
on to the remainder of the comprehension questions
(described next). However, if children provided an
incomplete answer (such as, My picture is torn), M
asked for the missing piece of information (e.g.,
And who tore it?).
Once children had demonstrated comprehension,
M then moved Anna and Kellys boxes in front of
the child (so that she and the child could point to
the photo of each transgressor during the subse-
quent questions and answers). M then asked two
further comprehension questions, specically, if the
child could recall what Anna and Kelly each said
after the picture was torn. If the child answered
correctly (She said she didnt want it to happen
or She said it was her faultor something similar
for the remorseful transgressor; She said she didnt
careor something similar for the unremorseful
transgressor), M said, Yes, thats right. Youve
understood correctly,and repeated what each
transgressor had said. If, however, the child
answered incorrectly (e.g., She said it was her
faultin the unremorseful case), M said, Hmm,
Im not sure about that,and provided the child
with the correct information. M then provided a
reminder of what each actress said. This was done
to ensure that all children received the same, correct
information before being asked the test questions.
We chose to explicitly provide children with the
correct information because our primary aim was
not to test whether children comprehend the trans-
gression and the transgressorsresponses on their
own but rather to examine how children respond
when they have this information. Children were
then asked the following test questions (adapted
from Vaish et al., 2011):
1. Whom are you more upset with, Anna or
Kelly?(pointing to each actress in turn)
1a. Why are you more upset with her?
2. Whom do you like more, Anna or Kelly?
(pointing to each)
2a. Why do you like her more?
3. If you fell over, who do you think would
help you, Anna or Kelly?(pointing to each)
3a. Why do you think she would help you?
4. If you drew another picture, who do you
think would tear it again, Anna or Kelly?
(pointing to each)
4a. Why do you think she would tear it
again?
The order of these question pairs was counterbal-
anced across children. After testing 16 children
(seven 5-year-olds and nine 4-year-olds), we real-
ized that Question 4 taps into childrens expecta-
tions about a future transgression that is the same
as the transgression that occurred in the experi-
ment, but that it would also be interesting to assess
whether childrens expectations generalized to a dif-
ferent future transgression. We thus added a fth
test question pair:
5. If you were playing on the swings, who do
you think would push you off, Anna or
Kelly?(pointing to each)
5a. Why do you think she would push you
off?
This fth question pair was inserted at the very end
of the procedure. Thus, the procedure was identical
for the entire sample and after the rst 16 participants,
the remaining children also received this additional
question pair at the end of the entire procedure.
Questions 15 were forced-choice questions,
designed to assess whether, when presented with the
choice, childrens evaluations take into account the
transgressorsremorse. In answering the forced-choice
4 Oostenbroek and Vaish
questions, children were expected to name or point to
one of the transgressors. If a child responded
with Bothor Neither,M encouraged the child to
choose one. If a child did not respond, M repeated
the question, but if the child still did not respond, M
moved on to the next question. Questions 1a5a were
open questions, designed to elicit justications for
childrens responses to the forced-choice questions. M
therefore did not prompt or probe children when
they were answering the open questions, and did not
provide any feedback on the content of their
responses.
After the rst four test questions, M gave the
child three cloth owers and said, Here are three
owers. Later, Anna and Kelly will look inside their
boxes. You can give the owers out to Anna and
Kelly how ever you like. I just have some work to
do over here for a minute,(M looked away and
shufed some papers so the child did not feel
observed). If the child was hesitant or asked for
guidance, M said, You can give the owers out
how ever you like.Children were expected to dis-
tribute all three of the owers between the two
transgressors. Once children distributed the owers,
M asked them a nal justication question: Why
did you give [Anna or Kelly] more owers?
Again, the child was free to respond, and M did
not prompt or probe the child further. Finally, M
asked the fth question pair (beginning after the
rst 16 children). This concluded the study. In
order to end the procedure on a positive note, both
actresses returned to the room and apologized for
tearing the childs picture. All three experimenters
then helped the child draw a new picture. Children
were then taken to their parents and were given a
gift for their participation. The experimental proce-
dure took approximately 15 min.
Counterbalancing
Children in each age group were randomly
assigned to one of 20 presentation orders, which
counterbalanced the following: which side of the
child each actress sat, which actress expressed
remorse or no remorse, whether remorse or no
remorse was expressed rst, the order of the test
question pairs (with the exception of the fth ques-
tion pair), as well as the order that the actresses
names appeared in the test questions.
Coding and Reliability
The primary coder (the rst author) used tran-
scriptions to code whether children responded
correctly to the comprehension questions and the
forced-choice test questions (Questions 15).
Responses (verbal or pointing) were scored 1 if they
were consistent with the hypotheses that children
should (a) be more upset with the unremorseful
transgressor, (b) prefer the remorseful transgressor,
(c) think the remorseful transgressor would help
them if they fell over, (d) think the unremorseful
transgressor would tear another picture of the
childs again and, (e) think the unremorseful trans-
gressor would push them off the swing; responses
not consistent with these hypotheses were scored 0.
A second coder (unaware of the hypotheses) coded
100% of the sample. Reliability for both the compre-
hension checks and forced-choice test questions was
perfect, both js=1.00.
The primary coder used video to code whether
children gave 0, 1, 2, or 3 owers to the remorseful
transgressor. The second coder also coded this vari-
able for the whole sample and agreement between
coders was 100%.
In addition, childrens justications (in response
to Questions 1a5a as well as following the distri-
bution of owers) were coded from the transcrip-
tions. Each justication was assigned a score of 1 or
0 (see Table 1 for details of the coding scheme). Jus-
tications were assigned a score of 1 if they indi-
cated relevant and sophisticated reasoning about
the transgressors and their responses, including jus-
tications that referred to feelings of remorse or
apologies, or involved moral evaluations. Refer-
ences to a transgressors feelings of remorse (or the
lack thereof) could be of two types: One type
Remorse (repeated)involved repeating
phrases that the transgressors had used in the inter-
action (e.g., Because she said it was her fault that
she tore my picture), whereas the other type
Remorse (re-described)involved using
phrases other than those used by the transgressors
in the interaction (e.g., Because she said sorry for
tearing my picture). Although Remorse (re-
peated)was obviously related to our question of
whether children forgive remorseful transgressors,
it was unclear whether children were engaging in
higher level reasoning or not when children
repeated phrases used by the transgressors in the
interaction. That is, did children truly reason about
the transgressorsresponses in a sophisticated way
but chose to repeat what the transgressors had said,
or did they not understand the transgressors
responses in a sophisticated way and therefore sim-
ply repeated what the transgressors had said? To
account for both possibilities, we analyzed chil-
drens justications in two ways: In one, Remorse
Forgiveness in Young Children 5
(repeated)was assigned a score of 1, and in the
other, it was assigned a score of 0 (cf. Vaish et al.,
2011).
All other justications were assigned a 0, includ-
ing those that were not diagnostic. For instance, jus-
tications based on one of the transgressors tearing
the childs picture received a score of 0 because in
fact both transgressors tore the childs picture. A
second coder (unaware of the hypotheses) coded
justications of a random 25% of children. Reliabil-
ity was perfect, j=1.
Results
We begin with the results of the comprehension
checks in order to provide information about how
well children understood the interaction and how
accurately they recalled each transgressors response
after their picture was torn. We then present results
from the test questions and the distribution of
resources task. Preliminary analyses revealed that
for both the 4- and 5-year-old groups, there were no
signicant effects of gender. We therefore collapsed
across this variable for all analyses.
Comprehension Checks
Comprehension check 1. What happened to your
picture? Next we report the distribution of chil-
drens responses by age group.
Age comparisons. A chi-square analysis
revealed that the older children were somewhat
more likely to respond correctly than the younger
children, p=.057.
4-Year-olds. When asked what had happened
to their picture, eight of twenty 4-year-olds (40%)
correctly responded that the two actresses had torn
it. Of the remaining 12, one child (5%) responded
that only one actress had torn their picture (the
remorseful transgressor); four children (20%) pro-
vided incomplete answers and when asked the fol-
low-up question (Who tore it?), three children said
the remorseful transgressor had torn it and one
said the unremorseful transgressor had torn it; and
seven children (35%) responded that they did not
know what happened to their picture. For the 12
children who provided incomplete or incorrect
answers, M claried that in fact both actresses
were holding the childs picture and both had
torn it.
5-Year-olds. When asked what had happened
to their picture, fourteen of twenty 5-year-olds
(70%) correctly responded that the two actresses
had torn it. The remaining six children (30%)
responded that they did not know what happened
to their picture, and M then provided them with
the correct information.
Comprehension check 2. Can you remember what
[Anna or Kelly] said after your picture was torn? Next
we report the distribution of childrens responses
by age group.
Age comparisons. Signicantly more 5- than
4-year-olds correctly recalled what the remorseful
transgressor said after the picture was torn, (Fish-
ers exact test [due to small Ns in some cells],
p=.048). However, there was no signicant differ-
ence between the age groups for childrens recall of
what the unremorseful transgressor said (p=.280).
Table 1
Coding Scheme for Justications: Study 1
Score Category Content
1 Remorse (re-described) Transgressor did (or did not) show remorse (child uses words other than those used
by the actresses in the experiment or by M); for example, Because she tore my
picture and said she was sorry
Moral character, evaluation, or norm Transgressor is a good (or bad) person, transgressors response to the transgression
was good (or bad), or transgressor broke (or did not break) a moral norm;
for example, Because she said the right thingor Because shes a nicer person
Remorse (repeated) [analyses were
conducted with this category scored
as 1and as 0]
Transgressor did (or did not) show remorse (child uses words that had been used by
the actresses in the experiment or by M); for example, Because she said,
It was all my fault’” or Because she said she didnt care
0 Own preference Childs own preference for the transgressor; for example, Because I like her more
Action Transgressor tore the picture
Object The picture is torn or ripped and can no longer be repaired
Other, irrelevant, or uncodable Response could not be put into any of the above categories (e.g., Just because),
was irrelevant (e.g., Because my head would hurt) or could not be coded
(e.g., because the childs speech could not be understood)
6 Oostenbroek and Vaish
4-Year-olds. When asked what the remorseful
transgressor said, four children (20%) provided no
verbal response. Of the 16 children who provided a
response, 11 (55%) answered correctly (binomial
probability, using a test proportion of .50, p=.210)
and 5 (25%) answered incorrectly. When asked
what the unremorseful transgressor said, four chil-
dren (20%) provided no verbal response. Of the 16
children who provided a response, 8 children (40%)
answered correctly (binomial probability, p=1.00),
and eight children (40%) answered incorrectly.
5-Year-olds. When asked what the remorseful
transgressor said, seven children (35%) provided no
verbal response. The remaining 13 children (65%)
answered correctly (binomial probability,
p<.0005). When asked what the unremorseful
transgressor said, four children (20%) provided no
verbal response. Of the 16 children who provided a
response, 11 (55%) answered correctly (binomial
probability, p=.210) and ve children (25%)
answered incorrectly.
Test Questions
Forced-choice questions. Preliminary analyses
revealed no signicant effects of either 4- or 5-year-
oldsperformance on the comprehension checks on
their performance on the test questions. This vari-
able was thus not included in further analyses.
Age comparisons. Chi-square analyses
revealed that on four of the ve forced-choice test
questions, signicantly more 5- than 4-year-olds
drew the hypothesized inferences (all ps<.022, φ
range =.36.51; see Figure 1). The one question that
did not reveal a signicant age difference was the
question about which transgressor would tear
another picture that the child drew (p=.239). Addi-
tionally, the proportion of the ve test questions
answered in the hypothesized way was signi-
cantly higher among the 5-year-olds (M=0.86;
SD =.28) than 4-year-olds (M=0.49; SD =.45),
t(38) =3.07, p=.004, Cohensd=0.98. We thus
analyzed each age group separately.
4-Year-olds. The 4-year-oldsresponses indi-
cated that they did not draw any of the hypothesized
inferences. That is, 4-year-olds did not systematically
choose either the remorseful or unremorseful trans-
gressor when judging whom they were more upset
with, whom they liked more, who they thought
would help them if they fell over, or who would be
more likely to tear another picture that they drew or
push them off a swing. The proportion of children
who responded in the hypothesized way on each
question ranged from .45 to .60; binomial probabili-
ties, all ps>.503. Altogether, only nine of 20 children
(45%) responded as predicted to more than half of
the forced-choice questions (p=.824).
5-Year-olds. In striking contrast to the 4-year-
olds, the majority of the 5-year-olds did draw the
appropriate and hypothesized inferences for each
question: They were more upset with the unre-
morseful transgressor (binomial probability,
p<.0005), liked the remorseful transgressor more
(p<.0005), thought the remorseful transgressor
would be more likely to help them (p=.012), and
thought the unremorseful transgressor would be
Figure 1. Proportion of 4- and 5-year-old children in Study 1 who answered each test question and distributed resources in the hypoth-
esized ways. The dashed line indicates chance level.
Note. *p<.05. **p<.01. ***p<.0005.
Forgiveness in Young Children 7
more likely to tear another picture that the child
drew (p=.031) and to push them off a swing
(p=.003). Furthermore, 18 of 20 children (90%)
responded as predicted to more than half of the
forced-choice questions (p<.0005).
Justications. Childrens justications were
compared across the age groups. Justications were
only included in analyses if children had answered
the prior forced-choice test question in the pre-
dicted way (following Vaish et al., 2011; but see
Appendix S1 for analyses including justications
from all children). This resulted in thirteen 4-year-
olds and nineteen 5-year-olds being included, as
seven 4-year-olds and one 5-year-old did not
answer any of the forced-choice questions in the
hypothesized ways.
Additionally, three 4-year-olds and three 5-year-
olds did respond to one or more forced-choice
questions in the hypothesized way but did not pro-
vide any verbal responses to the respective justica-
tion questions, so their data were excluded from
analyses (but note that including these children in
analyses and assigning their responses a score of 0
did not change the pattern of any of the results).
The analyses of justications were thus conducted
with ten 4-year-olds and sixteen 5-year-olds.
When Remorse (repeated)was assigned a
score of 1, only ve of the ten 4-year-olds provided
a Level-1 justication, whereas fourteen of the six-
teen 5-year-olds provided at least one Level-1 justi-
cation across all justication questions, indicating
a sophisticated level of understanding and reason-
ing about the transgressors and their responses
among the older children. Comparing across age
groups revealed that somewhat more 5-year-olds
than 4-year-olds provided at least one higher level
justication (Fishers exact test, p=.069). When
Remorse (repeated)was assigned a score of 0,
less than half of the 4-year-olds (3 of 10) still pro-
vided at least one Level-1 justication, whereas
more than half of the 5-year-olds (10 of 16) did so.
However, this difference between age groups was
no longer signicant, p=.107. (Table 2 provides
the numbers obtained using both coding methods.)
Distribution of Resources
Distribution
Age comparisons. A chi-square analysis indi-
cated that a greater proportion of 5- than 4-year-
olds distributed more owers to the remorseful
transgressor, v
2
(1, N=40) =8.64, p=.003, φ= .46.
The mean number of owers given to the remorse-
ful transgressor was also higher among 5-year-olds
(M=1.9, SD =.45) than 4-year-olds (M=1.35,
SD =.75), t(38) =2.83, p=.007, Cohensd=0.89.
We thus analyzed each group separately.
4-Year-olds. Only eight of twenty 4-year-olds
(40%) gave more owers (two or three of three) to
the remorseful transgressor (binomial probability,
p=.503). Twelve 4-year-olds (60%) gave more
owers to the unremorseful transgressor. The mean
number of owers given to the remorseful trans-
gressor (M=1.35, SD =.75) was not signicantly
different from the mean number of owers given to
the unremorseful transgressor (M=1.65, SD =.75),
t(19) =0.90, p=.379.
5-Year-olds. In contrast, seventeen of twenty
5-year-olds (85%) gave more owers to the
remorseful transgressor (binomial probability,
p=.003). Three 5-year-olds (15%) gave more ow-
ers to the unremorseful transgressor. The mean
number of owers given to the remorseful trans-
gressor (M=1.90, SD =.45) was signicantly dif-
ferent from the mean number of owers given to
the unremorseful transgressor (M=1.10, SD =.45),
t(19) =4.00, p=.001, Cohensd=1.78.
Justications
Childrens justications were compared across
the age groups. Justications were only included in
analyses if children had distributed the resources as
hypothesized, that is, distributed more owers to
the remorseful transgressor (but see Appendix S1
for analyses including justications from all chil-
dren). Furthermore, assigning Remorse (repeated)
a score of 1 versus 0 did not change the pattern of
results, so we only report analyses in which it was
assigned a score of 1 (but see Table 2 for numbers
obtained with both coding methods). Of the eight
4-year-olds who distributed the resources as pre-
dicted, two provided no verbal justications. Four
of the remaining six children in the 4-year-old
group provided Level-1 justications. Of the seven-
teen 5-year-olds who distributed the resources as
predicted, one provided no verbal justication. Ten
of the remaining 16 children provided Level-1 justi-
cations. There was no signicant difference across
age groups in the proportion of children who pro-
vided Level-1 justications on the distribution of
resources task, Fishers exact test, p=1.000.
Discussion
As predicted, 5-year-olds were much more for-
giving of a transgressor who showed remorse after
causing them harm than a transgressor who
8 Oostenbroek and Vaish
showed no remorse. This was evident in their posi-
tive evaluations and expectations of the remorseful
transgressor, their negative evaluations and expec-
tations of the unremorseful transgressor, and their
distribution of more resources to the remorseful
transgressor. Four-year-olds, on the other hand, did
not show these differences in their evaluations,
expectations, or resource distribution. Thus,
between 4 and 5 years, children become capable of
forgiving those who have harmed them if the trans-
gressors display remorse.
Importantly, as the remorseful transgressor in
Study 1 did not apologize, children in our study
could not have relied on supercial cues of apolo-
gies to draw their inferences. Therefore, 5-year-olds
seem to truly understand the meaning of expres-
sions of remorse rather than simply relying on
whether the convention of offering an apology was
followed or not. Childrens justications also pro-
vided evidence for this, as several 5-year-olds stated
that the remorseful transgressor had said she was
sorry,even though she had not offered an explicit
apology. This suggests that 5-year-olds have begun
to perceive the true meaning behind apologizing,
namely, to convey remorse and to demonstrate a
desire to make amends.
The results of Study 1 suggest that 4-year-olds
are no more forgiving of remorseful than unre-
morseful transgressors. Yet, it is unknown whether
the 4-year-oldsat-chance performance was attribu-
table to difculties with the task or due to the
absence of explicit apologies. We know from Vaish
et al.s (2011) Study 2 ndings that when a third-
party transgressors remorse was accompanied by
explicit apologies, 4-year-olds did show the same
positive responses toward the apologetic transgres-
sor as the 5-year-olds did toward the remorseful
transgressor. Therefore, in Study 2, we asked
whether 4-year-olds would forgive an apologetic
transgressor and thus show an improved perfor-
mance compared to the 4-year-olds in Study 1 and
a more similar performance to the 5-year-olds in
Study 1. If so, then the 4-year-oldsat-chance per-
formance in Study 1 is unlikely to have been due to
procedural demands. The method of Study 2 was
identical to Study 1 except that the remorseful
transgressor now explicitly apologized. Based on
Vaish et al. (2011) and Smith and Harris (2012), we
predicted that 4-year-olds would forgive (that is,
prefer, evaluate more positively, make more posi-
tive generalizations about, and give more resources
to) a transgressor who explicitly apologized than an
unremorseful transgressor.
Study 2
Method
Participants
Twenty 4-year-olds (M=53;9; SD =2;63;
range =49;257;70; 10 girls) were included in the
study (no children were excluded). Data were col-
lected between February and April 2017. All fami-
lies provided information about race and
education: 75% of the parents were Caucasian,
and 90% of the parents were at least college edu-
cated. Children were recruited and tested as in
Study 1.
Design, Materials, and Setting
The design and materials of Study 2 were identical
to those in Study 1 with the only difference being
Table 2
Childrens Justications in Study 1 and Study 2
Variable
5-Year-olds
Study 1: Remorse
Score
4-Year-olds
Study 1: Remorse
Score
4-Year-olds
Study 2: Apology
Score
1 010 1 0
Remorse (repeated)in Study 1 & Apologyin Study 2 coded as 1, %
Test questions 70 (14) 10 (2) 25 (5) 25 (5) 65 (13) 25 (5)
Distribution of resources 50 (10) 30 (6) 20 (4) 10 (2) 35 (7) 25 (5)
Remorse (repeated)in Study 1 & Apologyin Study 2 coded as 0, %
Test questions 50 (10) 30 (6) 15 (3) 35 (7) 30 (6) 60 (12)
Distribution of resources 40 (8) 40 (8) 15 (3) 15 (3) 5 (1) 55 (11)
Note. The values represent the percentage of children (raw numbers in parentheses) who provided at least one higher level justication
(score of 1) versus none (score of 0).
Forgiveness in Young Children 9
that after tearing the childs picture, the remorseful
transgressors response was changed to: Oh, Ive
torn your picture. Im sorry. I apologize.Counter-
balanced variables were exactly as in Study 1.
Procedure
The procedure of Study 2 was identical to that of
Study 1 with only the following changes: (a) when
children were asked the second comprehension
probe about whether they could recall what the
remorseful transgressor said, if the child answered
correctly (She said she was sorryor She apolo-
gizedor something similar), M said, Yes, thats
right. Youve understood correctly,and repeated
what the remorseful transgressor said. If, however,
the child answered incorrectly, M said, Hmm, Im
not sure about that,and provided the child with
the correct information, and (b) the reminder that
M provided prior to asking the test questions was
changed to reect the remorseful transgressors
explicit apology.
Coding and Reliability
Childrens responses were coded as in Study 1.
For a random 25% of the sample, childrens
responses were coded by a second coder (unaware
of the hypotheses). Reliability was perfect for all
measures: j=1 for the comprehension probes as
well as the forced-choice test questions, and 100%
agreement for the distribution of the three owers.
Scores of 1 or 0 were again assigned to childrens
justications. Justications that indicated relevant
and sophisticated reasoning about the transgressors
and their responses, including justications that
referred to feelings of remorse or apologies or
involved moral evaluations, were assigned a score of
1. However, unlike in Study 1, justications involv-
ing apologies in Study 2 could be a product of
repeating phrases that had been used by the actresses
in the experiment or by M (e.g., Because she said
sorryor Because she apologized) rather than from
a true understanding of the transgressorsfeelings or
motivations for apologizing. That is, children might
in fact have understood the transgressorsresponses
in a sophisticated way but chose to repeat apology-
related phrases used by the actresses or by M, or they
may not have understood the transgressors
responses in a sophisticated way and therefore sim-
ply repeated the phrases they heard. To account for
both possibilities, we conducted two sets of analyses
of childrens justications: In one, Apologywas
assigned a score of 1, and in the other, it was
assigned a score of 0. All other justications were
assigned a score of 0 (see Table 3 for details of the
coding scheme). A second coder (unaware of the
hypotheses) coded justications of a random 25% of
children. Reliability was perfect, j=1.
Results
Results will be reported in the same order as for
Study 1. Preliminary analyses revealed that for both
age groups, there were no signicant effects of gen-
der. We therefore collapsed across this variable for
all analyses. For each measure of interest (i.e., com-
prehension checks, test questions and distribution
of resources task), we rst report on the perfor-
mance of the 4-year-olds in Study 2 and then com-
pare their performance to that of the 4- and 5-year-
olds in Study 1. These cross-study comparisons
were made to evaluate whether the use of an expli-
cit apology improved the 4-year-oldsperformance
in Study 2 to make it more similar to that of the 5-
year-olds in Study 1.
Comprehension Checks
Comprehension check 1. What happened to your
picture?
4-Year-olds, Study 2. Due to experimenter
error, one child was not asked this question. When
asked what had happened to their picture, eleven
of nineteen 4-year-olds (58%) correctly responded
that the two actresses had torn it; one child (5.5%)
responded that only one actress had torn it (the
remorseful transgressor); ve children (26%)
responded that they did not know what happened
to their picture; and two children (10.5%) did not
provide any verbal responses. For the eight children
who did not answer correctly or provided no verbal
responses, M claried that in fact both actresses
were holding the childs picture and both had
torn it.
Age comparisons. Across studies, the number
of children who answered the rst comprehension
check correctly in Study 2 was not signicantly dif-
ferent from the number of 4-year-olds (p=.264) or
5-year-olds (p=.431) who answered it correctly in
Study 1.
Comprehension check 2. Can you remember what
[Anna or Kelly] said after your picture was torn?
4-Year-olds, Study 2. When asked what the
remorseful transgressor said, one child (5%) pro-
vided no verbal response. Of the 19 children who
provided a response, 11 (55%) answered correctly
10 Oostenbroek and Vaish
(binomial probability, p=.648) and eight (40%)
answered incorrectly. When asked what the unre-
morseful transgressor said, four children (20%) pro-
vided no verbal response. Of the 16 children who
provided a response, 9 (45%) answered correctly
(binomial probability, p=.804) and seven children
(35%) answered incorrectly.
Age comparisons with 4-year-olds in Study
1. Childrens responses across studies were com-
pared using chi-square tests. When comparing 4-
year-oldscomprehension in Study 1 versus Study
2, there was no signicant difference between the
two groups for childrens recall of what the
remorseful transgressor (p=.508) or unremorseful
transgressor (p=.723) said.
Age comparisons with 5-year-olds in Study
1. Signicantly more 5-year-olds in Study 1 than
4-year-olds in Study 2 correctly recalled what the
remorseful transgressor said after the picture was
torn (Fishers exact test, p=.010). However, there
was no signicant difference between the 5-year-
olds in Study 1 and 4-year-olds in Study 2 for chil-
drens recall of what the unremorseful transgressor
said, (p=.465).
Test Questions
Forced-choice questions. Preliminary analyses
revealed no signicant effects of childrens perfor-
mance on the comprehension checks on childrens
performance on the test questions. This variable
was thus not included in further analyses.
4-Year-olds, Study 2. Childrens responses to
the ve test questions indicated that they drew
nearly all of the appropriate, hypothesized infer-
ences. The proportion of children who responded in
the hypothesized way on Questions 1 through 4
ranged from .75 to .85; binomial probabilities, all
ps<.041 (see Figure 2). Fourteen of 20 children
(70%) also responded in the hypothesized way for
Question 5 (If you were playing on the swings,
who do you think would push you off?), but this
proportion was not signicantly above chance (bi-
nomial probability, p=.115). In spite of this, a sig-
nicant majority of children (17 of 20) responded in
the hypothesized way to more than half of the
forced-choice questions (p=.003).
Age comparisons with 4-year-olds in Study
1. To compare childrens performance across
studies and ages, we conducted chi-square analyses.
Signicantly more 4-year-olds in Study 2 than those
in Study 1 responded in the hypothesized way to
two of the ve forced-choice test questions (Whom
are you more upset with?,p=.008, φ= .42, and
If you fell over, who do you think would help
you?,p=.022, φ= .36; see Figure 2). Furthermore,
the proportion of questions answered in the
hypothesized way was signicantly higher among
the 4-year-olds in Study 2 (M=0.78, SD =.32) than
the 4-year-olds in Study 1 (M=0.49, SD =.45),
t(38) =2.30, p=.027, Cohensd=0.74.
Age comparisons with 5-year-olds in Study
1. Results revealed that the 4-year-olds in Study 2
performed similarly to the 5-year-olds in Study 1.
Specically, on all forced-choice questions, there
were no signicant differences in the numbers of
4-year-olds in Study 2 versus 5-year-olds in Study 1
who responded in the hypothesized ways (all
Table 3
Coding Scheme for Justications: Study 2
Score Category Content
1 Remorse Transgressor did (or did not) show remorse (child uses words other than
those used by the actresses in the experiment or by M); for example,
Because she tore my picture and said it was her fault
Moral character, evaluation, or norm Transgressor is a good (or bad) person, transgressors response to the
transgression was good (or bad), or transgressor broke (or did not break)
a moral norm; for example, Because she said the right thingor
Because shes a nicer person
Apology [analyses were conducted
with this category scored as 1and as 0]
Transgressor did (or did not) apologize; for example,
Because she said sorryor Because she apologized
0 Own preference Childs own preference for the transgressor
Action Transgressor tore the picture
Object The picture is torn or ripped and can no longer be repaired
Other, irrelevant, or uncodable Response could not be put into any of the above categories, was irrelevant,
or could not be coded
Forgiveness in Young Children 11
ps>.202). There was also no signicant difference
between these two groups in the proportion of ques-
tions answered in the hypothesized way (p=.421).
Together, these analyses show that 4-year-oldsper-
formance on the forced-choice test questions
improved substantially in Study 2 when the remorse-
ful transgressor provided an explicit apology.
Justications. As in Study 1, justications were
included in analyses only if children had answered
the prior forced-choice test question in the pre-
dicted way (but see Appendix S1 for analyses
including justications from all children). This
resulted in 18 children being included in the analy-
ses, as two children did not answer any of the
forced-choice test questions as predicted.
Assigning Apologya score of 1 versus 0 did
not change the pattern of results. We will thus only
report analyses in which it was assigned a score of
1 (but see Table 2 for numbers obtained with both
coding methods). The majority of 4-year-olds (13 of
18) provided at least one Level-1 justication across
the justication questions. This proportion was not
signicantly different from the proportion of 4-
year-olds in Study 1 (Fishers exact test, p=.412) or
the proportion of 5-year-olds in Study 1 (Fishers
exact test, p=.405), who provided at least one such
justication when Remorse (repeated)was scored
1.
Distribution of Resources
Distribution
4-Year-olds, Study 2. Of the twenty 4-year-
olds in Study 2, one refused to distribute any
owers. Of the remaining 19 children, 12 children
(63%) gave more owers (two or three of three) to
the remorseful transgressor (binomial probability,
p=.359). Seven children (37%) gave more owers
to the unremorseful transgressor. The mean number
of owers given to the remorseful transgressor
(M=1.68, SD =.58) was not signicantly different
from the mean number of owers given to the
unremorseful transgressor (M=1.32, SD =.58), t
(19) =1.379, p=.185.
Age comparisons with the 4-year-olds Study
1. A chi-square analysis revealed no signicant
difference in the proportion of 4-year-olds in Study
2 who gave more owers to the remorseful trans-
gressor compared to the proportion of 4-year-olds
in Study 1 who did so (p=.148). The number of
owers that 4-year-olds in Study 2 gave to the
remorseful transgressor (M=1.68, SD =.58) also
did not signicantly differ from the number of
owers that 4-year-olds in Study 1 gave to the
remorseful transgressor (M=1.35, SD =.75;
p=.128).
Age comparisons with the 5-year-olds in Study
1. A chi-square analysis revealed no signicant
difference in the proportion of 4-year-olds in Study
2 who gave more owers to the remorseful trans-
gressor compared to the proportion of 5-year-olds
in Study 1 who did so (p=.155). The number of
owers that 4-year-olds in Study 2 gave to the
remorseful transgressor (M=1.68, SD =.58) also
did not signicantly differ from the number of
owers that 5-year-olds in Study 1 gave to the
remorseful transgressor (M=1.90, SD =.45;
p=.201).
Figure 2. Proportion of 4-year-old children in Study 1 and 4-year-old children in Study 2 who answered each test question and dis-
tributed resources in the hypothesized ways. The dashed line indicates chance level.
Note. *p<.05. **p<.01.
12 Oostenbroek and Vaish
Justications
Childrens justications were included in analy-
ses only if children had distributed the resources as
hypothesized, that is, distributed more owers to
the remorseful transgressor (but see Appendix S1
for analyses including justications from all chil-
dren). When Apologywas assigned a score of 1,
over half of the 4-year-olds in Study 2 (7 of 12)
were scored as providing a Level-1 justication.
This proportion was not signicantly different from
the proportion of 4-year-olds in Study 1 (Fishers
exact test, p=1.000) or the proportion of 5-year-
olds in Study 1 (Fishers exact test, p=1.000) who
provided a Level-1 justication when Remorse (re-
peated)was scored 1.
When Apologywas assigned a score of 0, only
one of 12 children was scored as providing a Level-
1 justication. This proportion was not signicantly
different from the proportion of 4-year-olds in
Study 1 (Fishers exact test, p=.083) but was signif-
icantly different from the proportion of 5-year-olds
in Study 1 (Fishers exact test, p=.039) who
provided a Level-1 justication when Remorse
(repeated)was assigned a score of 0.
Discussion
In Study 2, when a transgressors remorse was
accompanied by an explicit apology, even 4-year-
olds were willing to forgive her more than an unre-
morseful transgressor. They liked the remorseful
transgressor more, were more upset with the unre-
morseful transgressor, judged the remorseful trans-
gressor as more likely to help them, and judged the
unremorseful transgressor as more likely to tear
another picture that they drew. Across these ques-
tions, the 4-year-olds in Study 2 performed very
similarly to the 5-year-olds in Study 1, indicating
that for this younger age group, transgressors
explicit apologies are important for eliciting
forgiveness.
Interestingly, unlike the 5-year-olds in Study 1,
4-year-olds in Study 2 did not report that they
expected the unremorseful transgressor to be more
likely to push them off a swing (even though they
did expect the unremorseful transgressor to be
more likely to tear another picture that they drew).
This might suggest that 4-year-olds limit their nega-
tive expectations about nonapologetic transgressors
to the specic transgressions that the transgressors
caused and do not form broader negative evalua-
tions that extend to novel situations (see Rholes &
Rubel, 1984). That would also help explain the lack
of difference in 4-year-oldsdistribution of
resources to the apologetic versus nonapologetic
transgressor, as these children might simply not
have generalized their evaluations from the specic
transgression to the new domain of distributing
resources. Note, however, that the distribution of
resources task as well as the nal test question
about the swing were presented at the very end of
the procedure, by which point the 4-year-olds
might have been fatigued or no longer able to
remember which transgressor had apologized. As
we will discuss further in the General Discussion,
our use of a live, in-person paradigm (rather than
videos or pictures) prevented us from providing
children with additional memory aids that could
have helped childrens performance. Still, all in all,
the results of Study 2 show that 4-year-olds do
forgive their transgressors if those transgressors
explicitly apologize.
General Discussion
When our cooperative relationships are damaged
by transgressions, they need to be repaired. One
part of this repair involves the transgressor display-
ing remorse, which conveys that the transgressor
regrets his actions and promises more acceptable
behavior in the future. However, remorse displays
alone are not sufcient; to successfully repair the
breached relationship, the victim must also respond
to the remorse and forgive the transgressor. In two
studies, we assessed the ontogeny of this latter pro-
cess by asking when children begin to forgive
remorseful transgressors. As predicted, results from
Study 1 revealed that 5-year-olds were more forgiv-
ing of a remorseful transgressor, even in the
absence of an apology. This was evident in their
positive evaluation of, preference for, and distribu-
tion of more resources to the remorseful transgres-
sor. Four-year-olds, on the other hand, did not
show any of these effects. In Study 2, however,
4-year-olds were more forgiving of a transgressor
who explicitly apologized than an unapologetic
transgressor. Our ndings thus indicate that during
the preschool years, children acquire the ability to
forgive those who show remorse after causing them
harm. This forgiveness reestablishes childrens posi-
tive feelings toward their transgressors and fosters
reconciliation, thus helping to repair their relation-
ships and uphold cooperation (McCullough, 2008).
Our results contribute importantly to prior work
examining childrens responses to remorseful trans-
gressors. Unlike previous research that has typically
Forgiveness in Young Children 13
placed children in the role of bystanders, where
children can reason in a relatively coolcognitive
state (e.g., Darby & Schlenker, 1982, 1989; Smith
et al., 2010; Vaish et al., 2011), our ndings demon-
strate that even as victims, when children may
experience stronger emotions such as sadness and
anger, 4- to 5-year-olds show sensitivity to remorse
and are more forgiving of remorseful transgressors.
Moreover, in the few prior studies in which chil-
dren were the victims, they responded to explicit
apologies, which are conventional cues of remorse
that children are trained from early on to use and
expect (Drell & Jaswal, 2016; Smith & Harris, 2012;
Smith et al., 2017); our ndings demonstrate that
by at least 5 years of age, children forgive trans-
gressors who display remorse even in the absence
of explicit apologies (see also Vaish et al., 2011).
Transgressorsremorse is thus a powerful elicitor of
forgiveness, even in young children. Taken
together, we now have a clearer understanding of
when forgiveness rst begins to emerge in develop-
ment: By as early as 4 years, children are willing to
forgive a remorseful transgressor, but only if con-
ventional cues of remorse such as apologies are pre-
sent. By 5 years, children are capable of forgiving a
remorseful transgressor even in the absence of
explicit apologies.
In Study 2, we found that 4-year-olds forgave a
transgressor who explicitly apologized more than
one who did not apologize, and that this forgive-
ness was very similar to the forgiveness shown by
5-year-olds to transgressorsremorse without apolo-
gies (Study 1). However, the improvement in
4-year-oldsperformance from Study 1 (remorse
without apologies) to Study 2 (remorse with apolo-
gies) was not quite as striking as the improvement
in performance by 4-year-olds in Vaish et al. (2011).
Specically, Vaish et al. found that 4-year-olds per-
formed consistently better on all four of their test
questions and the distribution of resources task
when the transgressors remorse involved an expli-
cit apology (Study 2) than no explicit apology
(Study 1). On the other hand, we found that the
4-year-olds in Study 2 did not perform signicantly
better than the 4-year-olds in Study 1 on three of
the ve test questions or on the distribution of
resources task (though the proportion of questions
they answered correctly in Study 2 was signi-
cantly higher).
There are a few possible reasons for this discrep-
ancy between Vaish et al.s (2011) and our results.
The most interesting possibility is that when chil-
dren are the victims themselves (as in our studies),
they may not respond as positively to transgressors
remorse as when they are bystanders (as in Vaish
et al.). Thus, at least at age 4, the hot cognition that
children engage in as the victims of a transgression
might indeed make forgiveness somewhat more
challenging than the cooler cognition that children
engage in when they witness third-party transgres-
sions. To address this possibility head-on, future
work should directly compare childrens responses
when they are the victims versus bystanders in a
transgression.
Other, more methodological explanations are also
possible for the discrepancy. For instance, our live,
in-person paradigm may have proved more chal-
lenging for the younger children than other para-
digms (e.g., videos, vignettes, or hypothetical
scenarios). Specically, our paradigm did not permit
us to provide children with additional cues and
memory aids, such as displaying images of the
transgressorsremorseful or unremorseful responses
throughout the question and distribution tasks, as
was the case in Vaish et al. (2011). Additionally,
whereas children in Vaish et al. witnessed two sets
of third-party transgressions and answered two sets
of the same questions, children in the current stud-
ies only experienced one transgression and
answered one set of questions (as we did not want
children to experience being harmed more than
once). In our live paradigm, therefore, children had
fewer opportunities to experience each transgres-
sors response (though the moderator did provide a
reminder of each response prior to asking the test
questions), and fewer opportunities to show their
forgiveness. These methodological differences might
partially explain why 4-year-olds in our Study 2 did
not show the same robust improvement in perfor-
mance as the 4-year-olds in Vaish et al.s Study 2.
Nevertheless, note that 4-year-olds in our Study
2 did perform similar to the 5-year-olds in our
Study 1. Moreover, some 4-year-olds in both Stud-
ies 1 and 2 provided justications to suggest that
their forced-choice responses were driven by for-
giveness-related aspects of the interactions. For
example, some children reasoned that the remorse-
ful transgressor cares about meand said nicer
words to me,while the unremorseful transgressor
wasnt being niceand was meaner.There is
thus good reason to think that an understanding of
what transgressorsapologies (or lack thereof) rep-
resent is beginning to emerge around 4 years of age
(see also Smith & Harris, 2012).
It is also important to consider more generally
what might account for the age effects present in
our study. First, research on childrens understand-
ing of traits has shown that preschool-aged children
14 Oostenbroek and Vaish
have difculties grasping that traits remain stable
and are predictive of behavior over time and across
different contexts (Rholes & Rubel, 1984; Ruble &
Dweck, 1995). Furthermore, preschool-aged children
need more behavioral examples to make trait attri-
butions, especially negative ones (Boseovski & Lee,
2006; Heyman & Dweck, 1998; Ronfard & Lane,
2017). Thus, perhaps the 4-year-olds in our study
were not as procient as the 5-year-olds at predict-
ing the transgressorsfuture behaviors (e.g., who
would be likely to help or hurt them in the future)
based on the behaviors they had just witnessed,
and they may also have had difculty generalizing
information about the transgressors to the new con-
text of distributing resources. Second, 5-year-olds
emotional understanding is likely more advanced
than that of 4-year-olds (Harris, 1989; Pons, Law-
son, Harris, & de Rosnay, 2003). For instance, 5-
year-olds might have a more sophisticated capacity
to read othersemotions such that even in the
absence of scripted phrases such as sorry,they
can nonetheless understand how a remorseful per-
son feels and can thus sympathize with and forgive
that person. Relatedly, these older children might
also be better able to infer an apology from dis-
plays of remorse, and that inference might then eli-
cit forgiveness. Future work is needed to
investigate these possibilities further.
Our study is not without limitations. One concern
is the nature of our unremorseful transgressors
response. Specically, in both studies, the unre-
morseful transgressor said, Oh, Ive torn your pic-
ture. Hmph [shrugging shoulders], I dont care.
Saying I dont careand shrugging the shoulders
could be seen as somewhat negative rather than
entirely neutral, and it could thus be argued that
children were not only responding to the presence
or absence of remorse but also to the unremorseful
transgressors callousness. We found, however, that
it is challenging to compose a suitable neutral
response that is sufciently distinct from an apolo-
getic or remorseful response. For example, if the
unremorseful transgressor had said, Thats too
bador Oh, now its torn,these phrases could be
seen as expressions of sympathy and concern for the
victim, both of which are in fact part of expressing
remorse. We thus chose to use the direct translations
of the (German) phrases used by Vaish et al. (2011)
so as to make our results comparable with theirs.
Importantly, some childrens justications did indi-
cate that they were using the remorse and not the
callousness of the transgressor to guide their choices
(e.g., Im more upset with her because she didnt
say sorry). Nonetheless, future work would benet
from using more unambiguously neutral responses
(e.g., having the unremorseful transgressor simply
stay silent) in order to draw stronger conclusions
about childrens responses.
Another possible concern is how well children
comprehended the transgression. In response to the
comprehension checks in Study 1, only 40% of
4-year-olds stated that the two transgressors had
torn their picture whereas 70% of 5-year-olds did so.
This raises the possibility that the majority of 4-year-
olds did not comprehend the transgression and that
perhaps their performance on the test questions
reects this lack of comprehension. Recall, however,
that children who answered the comprehension
questions incorrectly then received the correct infor-
mation from the moderator, and that all children
received a reminder with the correct information
prior to the test questions. Furthermore, if we only
consider those children who did answer the compre-
hension checks correctly, the pattern of results
remains very similar: The 4-year-olds still performed
at chance on all test questions whereas the 5-year-
olds drew the hypothesized inferences on four of the
ve test questions and distributed the resources as
predicted (binomial probabilities, all ps<.013).
Additionally, as the 4-year-olds in Study 2 did per-
form above chance on nearly all of the test questions,
it is unlikely that the poor test performance of the 4-
year-olds in Study 1 was due to comprehension
problems, since the transgression was identical
across studies. Finally, in Vaish et al.s (2011) Study
1, most 4-year-olds (approximately 80%) answered
the comprehension questions correctly, yet their per-
formance on the test questions was still at chance.
Considered together, it seems unlikely that poor
comprehension of the transgression explains chil-
drens test performance.
Nevertheless, we note that there are limitations
in how we assessed childrens comprehension. If
children answered incorrectly, the moderator imme-
diately gave children the correct information about
the event. It may have been helpful to ask children
a second time what had occurred, so that they
could generate the information about the transgres-
sion themselves. However, our primary aim was
not to test whether children comprehend the trans-
gression and the transgressorsresponses on their
own, but rather to examine how children respond
when they have the necessary information. We
acknowledge, though, that children often need to
deduce this information on their own in real-world
scenarios and are not explicitly given information
about a transgression, so the format of these ques-
tions reduces ecologically validity.
Forgiveness in Young Children 15
A further issue concerns our use of forced-choice
test questions. The format of these questions made
certain assumptions about childrens responses
(e.g., the question Whom are you more upset
with?presumed that they were upset) and forced
participants to choose one of the transgressors
when in fact children may have wanted to choose
both or neither. Indeed, research has shown that
children are less discriminating on tasks where they
are presented with one individual rather than two
contrasting individuals (Boseovski & Lee, 2006;
Ronfard & Lane, 2017). While we acknowledge that
there are limitations in using forced-choice ques-
tions, we chose to use them because as a rst step
in investigating childrens forgiveness, we believed
it was important to demonstrate that children can
discriminate between remorseful and unremorseful
transgressors and that they do show a systematic
preference at least within this more constrained for-
mat. We also wanted our ndings to be comparable
to those of Vaish et al. (2011) and thus chose to use
their format of questions. Furthermore, we did
include justication questions, which were open-
ended and permitted children to provide reasons
for their choices. It is also important to note that
there may be potential limitations in only using
open-ended questions. For example, when children
are shy or otherwise unwilling to respond verbally,
open-ended questions may make it harder to elicit
responses whereas forced-choice questions allow
children to provide simple verbal or gestural
responses (e.g., pointing at one individual).
Nonetheless, it will be important for future research
to move away from forced-choice to single trans-
gressor scenarios and assess how children respond
when the direct contrast between remorseful and
unremorseful transgressors is absent. Based on
prior work (e.g., Drell & Jaswal, 2016; Smith & Har-
ris, 2012), we would expect our ndings to hold
with such paradigms as well.
Another possible limitation of our procedure is
that we chose to use adult actresses instead of child
peers as the transgressors, which may have resulted
in a somewhat imbalanced power dynamic. Our
decision was based on practical considerations and
the desire to increase experimenter control, given
the challenge of having young children serve as
actors, particularly with a complex and demanding
procedure such as ours. It was also not practical to
match the gender of the actors and moderator to
that of the participant; as we did not nd any gen-
der differences on any measure in either study,
though, it is unlikely that the gender of the experi-
menters had an effect. It would be interesting for
future research, however, to examine whether chil-
drens responses differ when the transgressors are
peers and gender-matched to participants.
It is also important to consider whether we truly
measured childrens forgiveness. Unlike in adult
research, where participants recall or engage in
(seemingly) serious transgressions (e.g., betrayals of
trust), it is not feasible to ask young children to
introspect or, for ethical reasons, to subject them to
serious transgressions. Therefore, transgressions
used in experiments with children are necessarily of
a more trivial nature. As a result, the forgiveness
we have examined may be of a more limited form
than the forgiveness often examined in adults. Nev-
ertheless, childrens responses in our studies indi-
cate that they felt more positively toward the
remorseful transgressor, evaluated her more favor-
ably, and for the 5-year-olds, were more likely to
cooperate with her (by giving her more resources).
These are precisely the outcomes that forgiveness is
argued to promote (McCullough, 2008), and indeed,
from the point of view of repairing and maintaining
cooperation, it is these outcomes that matter most.
We thus believe that childrens responses in the
current studies are indicative of early forgiveness.
The results of this study highlight a number of
interesting future research directions. Adult
research has shown that forgiveness is associated
with numerous positive outcomes for both victims
and offenders. For instance, greater levels of for-
giveness are related to lower stress levels and
greater positive emotions for victims, and enhanced
psychological and physiological well-being for both
victims and offenders (Berry & Worthington, 2001;
Karremans, Van Lange, Ouwerkerk, & Kluwer,
2003; Orcutt, 2006; Witvliet, Ludwig, & Vander
Laan, 2001). It would be interesting for future
research to consider if children also experience posi-
tive outcomes of forgiveness, both as victims and
transgressors. That is, do children feel happier after
they forgive and are forgiven themselves? Notably
though, forgiveness may not always be the most
appropriate response to transgressions, such as in
cases of transgressions that cause the victim great
harm (e.g., Lamb, 2006) or when transgressors do
not believe they did anything wrong (Adams, Zou,
Inesi, & Pillutla, 2015). An important avenue for
future research is whether children always forgive
remorseful transgressors or whether there are con-
texts in which they too withhold forgiveness.
Exploring whether childrens forgiveness is cali-
brated in this way will greatly enrich our under-
standing of the development, functions, and
nuances of forgiveness.
16 Oostenbroek and Vaish
In sum, humans rely on the cooperation of others
for our survival and to achieve individual and com-
munal goals (Tomasello et al., 2012). When coopera-
tive relationships break down, therefore, it is critical
to repair them. Prior work had demonstrated that
when children transgress against others, they experi-
ence remorse and are motivated to repair the harm
caused (Kochanska et al., 2002; Vaish et al., 2016).
The present studies demonstrate that when they are
the victims, children respond to transgressors
remorse with forgiveness and so allow their broken
relationships to be repaired. From early in ontogeny,
then, humans are motivated to repair damaged rela-
tionships and thus uphold cooperation.
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Supporting Information
Additional supporting information may be found in
the online version of this article at the publishers
website:
Appendix S1. Full justication analyses
18 Oostenbroek and Vaish
... Forgiveness is widely studied among adults (for a bibliography of reviews and meta-analyses, see Griffin et al., 2019). In contrast, forgiveness research with children is scant, although momentum is building (Oostenbroek & Vaish, 2019b;van der Wal et al., 2017van der Wal et al., , 2019Wainryb et al., 2020). In this article, we make two important new contributions to understanding the forgiveness process among children and adolescents. ...
... From an early age, children attend to complex socially relevant factors when making decisions about forgiveness: Children as young as 4 years of age are more forgiving of transgressors who apologize than those who do not, and children as young as 5 years of age are more forgiving of remorseful transgressors (Oostenbroek & Vaish, 2019b). Further, children aged 4-9 years were more likely to expect that transgressors who apologized would feel bad than those who did not apologize (Smith et al., 2010). ...
... Prior work suggests the importance of not just measuring children's forgiving tendencies, but also asking for their social reasoning about forgiveness (Oostenbroek & Vaish, 2019b;Smith & Harris, 2012). For instance, Wainryb et al. (2020) asked children and adolescents (aged 7-16) to provide narrative accounts of times when they did and did not forgives others documenting that youth do attend to features such as apologizing as well as cognition around thoughts and feelings. ...
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Research on forgiveness with children and adolescents is growing, yet little is known about the developmental mechanisms that underlie intergroup forgiveness in children and adolescents. In this study, youth (M = 9.39 years, SD = 1.67, N = 185, 107 female and 78 male; 54.6% European American, 20.5% African American, 8.1% Latinx, 5.9% Asian American, 3.8% multiracial, and 7.1% other) provided judgments and reasoning about forgiveness in hypothetical scenarios involving intergroup and intragroup transgressions. Participants with more sophisticated theoryof mind were more forgiving of transgressors and were more likely to differentiate their thinking about how sorry ingroup and outgroup transgressors will feel. Participants were more likely to forgive ingroup members and those that apologize than outgroup members and those who do not apologize. Results reveal that youth, especially those with more advanced theory of mind skills, have a sophisticated understanding of intergroup forgiveness. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2021 APA, all rights reserved).
... However, how individuals learn about forgiveness throughout the life course is not well understood (e.g., Hill, et al., 2013). Recent studies, especially in the field of developmental psychology, have addressed how forgiveness emerges in children (e.g., Oostenbroek & Vaish, 2019). These studies focus on how children actively process forgiveness and whether they are able to forgive. ...
... In accord with this line of thought, individuals do not understand forgiveness until middle childhood. However, more recent studies have found that children as young as 4 and 5 may have an understanding of forgiveness (e.g., Darby & Schlenker, 1982, 1989Oostenbroek & Vaish, 2019). Considering a reminiscence bump occurs between ages 10 and 30 (e.g., Conway & Rubin, 1993;Rathbone et al., 2008), early memories of forgiveness may be easier for older adults to remember. ...
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The present study uncovers how older adults have reported learning about forgiveness throughout the life course. We used a series of 22 semi-structured interviews to create a proposed model of how individuals report learning about forgiveness throughout the life course: The Reflections on Forgiveness Framework. Participants were predominantly female (N = 19), well educated, and non-Hispanic White (N = 22). We found that participants primarily learned about forgiveness via religion and life experiences. Life experiences occurred through participants’ own forgiveness experiences and witnessing others forgive. Time also played a role in these personal experiences, with forgiveness becoming more important, although some continued resentment persisted. Participants tended to dwell less on transgressions as they became older and personal characteristics shaped the role of forgiveness in participants’ lives, with both contributing to forgiveness being more important. This framework is useful for clinicians and in further understanding how forgiveness develops and occurs throughout the life course.
... There is evidence that children aged 4-9 years could have a basic understanding of the emotional effects of apology on a transgressor and a victim (Smith et al., 2010). A recent study found that children as young as 4 years of age were more forgiving of a transgressor who had apologized than one who had not, and 5-year-olds were more forgiving of a remorseful wrongdoer than an unremorseful wrongdoer even when the wrongdoer did not explicitly apologize to the victim (Oostenbroek and Vaish, 2019). ...
... The individuallevel treatments focused on only the two parties-the transgressor and the victim. Previous studies on punishment and apology have seldom taken the well-being of the community into consideration (e.g., Cushman, 2008;Oostenbroek and Vaish, 2019). Community-level treatments consider the community as a whole in addressing wrongdoing. ...
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The present study investigated how young children understand the sophisticated concept of restorative justice in unintentional moral transgressions. A sex-balanced sample of 5-year-old (M = 5.67, SD = 0.34, 49.3% girls) and 8-year-old (M = 7.86, SD = 0.29, 46.0% girls) Chinese children (N = 193) participated in the study. In designing the materials, we distilled the multidimensional meanings of restorative justice into two stories, one addressing the theme of property violation and the other physical harm; both stories were set in an animal community. We then engaged the children in joint reading and an interview, during which they showed preference for the given treatments for the transgressor (two restorative treatments vs. two retributive treatments) and ranked two further sets of restorative vs. retributive treatments at the community level. The results indicated that most children favored restorative treatments over retributive treatments for a transgressor, and the 8-year-olds viewed psychological restoration more favorably and behavioral punishment less favorably than the 5-year-olds. The children also tended to endorse restorative treatments at the community level, revealing an understanding of the needs, and obligations of all parties concerned. Notably, more 8- than 5-year-olds showed a consistency in restorative orientation at this level. Interpreting our data through the lens of the Representational Redescription model, we attained a more refined account of young children's levels of understanding regarding restorative justice. These results provide insights for the early cultivation of restorative justice among young children, which is a cornerstone for its successful practice in any society.
... For example, when 4-and 5-year-old children suffer a transgression (e.g., someone accidentally destroys their artwork), they are more forgiving of a transgressor who shows remorse than one who does not. This is evident in children's preference for, positive evaluation of, and greater distribution of resources to the remorseful than the unremorseful transgressor (Drell & Jaswal, 2016;Oostenbroek & Vaish, 2019). Apologies do this work at least in part by modifying children's intention attributions such that transgressors who apologize are seen as having been less intentional in their transgressions (Ohbuchi & Sato, 1994;Ronfard & Lane, 2018). ...
... The content of the apology also matters to children. For instance, at age 4, children's forgiveness seems to rely on conventional elicitors of remorse such as explicit apologies (e.g., "I'm sorry"), whereas by age 5, children respond with forgiveness to displays of remorse even in the absence of explicit apologies (Oostenbroek & Vaish, 2019;Vaish, Carpenter, & Tomasello, 2011). Furthermore, 6-year-olds distinguish between different forms of apologies and respond more favorably to standard apologies (e.g., "I'm sorry, I feel badly about this") than perfunctory apologies (e.g., only saying "Excuse me") (Darby & Schlenker, 1982). ...
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When we commit transgressions, we need to be forgiven to restore our friendships and social standing. Two main ways we can elicit forgiveness is through asking for forgiveness after committing a transgression (i.e., retrospective elicitors) or before committing a transgression (i.e., prospective elicitors). Research on retrospective elicitors with adults and children indicates that apologizing or showing remorse elicits forgiveness from both victims and bystanders, and sheds light on the nuances of such elicitors and their functions. Far less is known about how adults and children respond to prospective elicitors of forgiveness, such as disclaimers (statements that prepare the listener for a transgression or a failure of character or performance, e.g., “I don’t mean to be rude but…”), and how the functions and effectiveness of prospective elicitors compare to those of retrospective elicitors. Furthermore, much less is known about the additive effects of using both retrospective and prospective elicitors of forgiveness. A better understanding how and when forgiveness is elicited in childhood and through adulthood promises to shed light on human sociality and cooperativeness.
... In a follow-up study, when the transgressor apologized explicitly ("sorry"), 4-year-olds did prefer and distribute more resources to her. Very similar results emerged in a more recent study in which children were themselves the victims (Oostenbroek & Vaish, 2019 However, one study that included 3-year-olds found that they did not evaluate apologetic transgressors more positively than non-apologetic ones (Wellman et al., 1979). Children's appreciation of guilt displays may thus only emerge around 4 years. ...
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Humans have evolved to be highly interdependent: We rely heavily on one another to survive and succeed as individuals and as a species. This interdependence has meant, in turn, the need to ensure the well-being of those with whom we are – or could potentially be – interdependent.
... One possible alternative to self-report is to employ behavioral measures, as with adult samples (e.g., Carlisle et al., 2012). For example, one study employed children's prosocial responses toward an offending classmate (credits allocated toward receipt of a gift) as a behavioral indicator of forgiveness (van der Wal et al., 2016), while other research has examined distributing resources to transgressors and non-transgressors as a measure of forgiveness (Oostenbroek and Vaish, 2019). However, behavioral measures may indicate motivations other than forgiveness per se, for example, general prosocial tendencies. ...
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