Get access

Young Children Selectively Avoid Helping People With Harmful Intentions


  • The authors thank the children and parents who participated in the study. They also thank Eva Leermann and Elvira Plath for help with data collection, Sandy Kennert and Jutta Schulze for help with coding, and Tobias Grossmann for helpful discussions and comments on the manuscript. This research was partially supported by a grant from the Excellence Cluster 302: Languages of Emotion.

concerning this article should be addressed to Amrisha Vaish, Department of Developmental and Comparative Psychology, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Deutscher Platz 6, 04103 Leipzig, Germany. Electronic mail may be sent to


Two studies investigated whether young children are selectively prosocial toward others, based on the others’ moral behaviors. In Study 1 (= 54), 3-year-olds watched 1 adult (the actor) harming or helping another adult. Children subsequently helped the harmful actor less often than a third (previously neutral) adult, but helped the helpful and neutral adults equally often. In Study 2 (= 36), 3-year-olds helped an actor who intended but failed to harm another adult less often than a neutral adult, but helped an accidentally harmful and a neutral adult equally often. Children’s prosocial behavior was thus mediated by the intentions behind the actor’s moral behavior, irrespective of outcome. Children thus selectively avoid helping those who cause—or even intend to cause—others harm.