Last updated December 21, 2017 at 3:23 pm
There’s a reason that a 10 minute remix of Tyrion slapping Joffrey from Game of Thrones has racked up millions of views on youtube. People get pleasure from watching others receive punishment for wrongdoings.
When does this kick in? A study this week in Nature Human Behaviour carried out an experiment with 4 to 6 year olds to find out at what point humans develop this desire to see justice served, and whether this same motivation exists in our closest relatives, chimpanzees.
To answer this question in humans, children were shown a puppet show. The puppet was either pro-social, and offered the children their favourite toys to play with, or anti-social, and offered the toys but then wouldn’t actually hand over the goods. The puppet was then received physical punishment from another puppet, visible for a brief period before a curtain was pulled across. To continue to see the punishment being meted out, children had to pay in stickers.
To test the desire to see revenge in chimps, researchers either offered to share food (pro-social) or offered and then withheld food (anti-social). To continue to watch the punishment in the case of chimps, they had to put in a lot of physical effort to more a heavy sliding door to another room.
Both chimps and 6 year olds (but not 4 or 5 year olds) were motivated enough to see the punishment dished out they were willing to pay for it.
Researchers quantified the amount of Schadenfreude expressed by the children by measuring the amount of times they smiled or frowned. 6 year olds showing the most mixed emotions to the punishment of anti-social behaviour, which the researchers interpret as them taking some form of pleasure from it. Chimps didn’t vocalise any differently to witnessing the punishment, but they did display emotional vocalisations at the punishment of the pro-social agent, which might indicate feeling a form of empathetic distress at seeing undeserved suffering.
It seems that 6 years of age is a critical point at which children are willing to make sacrifices to see what they judge as fair enacted. That this desire to see fair punishment extends to chimpanzees suggests that it has old evolutionary origins.