Hedonism or empathy?: Hard-to-manage children's moral awareness and links with cognitive and maternal characteristics

Authors


Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Research Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, De Crespigny Park, Denmark Hill, London SE5 8AF, UK (e-mail: claire.hughes@iop.kcl.ac.uk)

Abstract

Disruptive children have long been thought to show hedonistic rather than empathic attitudes to moral dilemmas, but accounts of what underlies this stance vary in different theoretical perspectives. Candidate factors include: general problems in verbal reasoning, specific delays in social understanding, reduced affective responsiveness and control, and negative parental influences. The present study is novel in examining each of these factors in a preschool-aged sample of disruptive children. In addition, interview assessments of moral awareness were compared with real-life observations of peer interactions to examine the ecological validity of such tasks. The study is also unusual in adopting a longitudinal design: the stability of group differences in moral awareness and its correlates was examined across a 2-year period spanning the transition to school. At age 4, 40 hard-to-manage children and their typically developing peers received a moral judgments and justifications interview and were filmed playing with a friend (Slomkowski & Killen, 1992). At age 6, the two groups completed a moral-stories task (Arsenio & Fleiss, 1996). Significant group differences were found at both time points; these differences showed stable relations with each of the correlates above, although the relation between interview measures of moral awareness and real-life behaviour was rather more complex. Overall, the findings of this study suggest that disruptive children show early and multi-faceted problems in socio-moral reasoning, that are associated with difficulties in their family and peer relationships.

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