Confessing, Hiding, or Showing off? - Researching morality in young children
Brenda M.S. da Silva and colleagues designed and validated the “Moral Emotions Questionnaire” (MEQ) for identifying three major moral emotions in preschoolers – allowing to separately measure guilt, shame and pride at the youngest ages.
- Brenda M. S. da Silva, Lizet Ketelaar, Guida Veiga, Yung-Ting Tsou, & Carolien Rieffe
- 02 March 2022
- Read the paper in Sage: Confessing, Hiding, or Showing off? - Researching morality in young children
Behaving as a responsible citizen
Moral emotions (such as pride, guilt and shame) arise when people feel judged or expect to be judged by others. They are also called “self-conscious” emotions, because they require knowing the norms and values of the social environment in which you live, but also an ability to self-evaluate. This means that one needs to recognize whether they did something “good” or “bad” in the light of these norms and values. And once they recognize it, expressing moral emotions through behavior (whether it be through body language, actions or words) has an important social function. For example, if you break a rule and show guilt or shame you can be forgiven more easily. Conversely, showing pride when achieving something great will help you get validation! Long story short – moral emotions help you behave as a responsible citizen in your community or society.
Learning social emotions
Moral emotions can only be acquired in the context of a child’s social environment, where they need to pick up this knowledge implicitly – for example through feedback or observing others showing moral emotions and the associated behaviors. But not everyone develops moral emotions in the same way and at the same time during childhood. Learning them late or experiencing them to a lesser extent can be linked to behaviors like bullying, aggression, delinquency or psychopathy later in life.
To prevent such negative outcomes, it is important that we better understand how moral emotions develop early in life. Ideally, we want to start at the youngest possible age to examine this. But, how do you know if a three-year-old feels guilty about stealing a cookie?
The Moral Emotions Questionnaire
To address this, Brenda M.S. da Silva and colleagues designed the Moral Emotions Questionnaire (MEQ), a parent / caregiver questionnaire that can reliably distinguish between shame, guilt and pride behaviors in very young children. Each emotion is represented through a set of items referencing observable behaviors. For example, “My child hides when he/she has done something wrong” (shame), “When my child does something he/she is not allowed to do, he/she tries to make up for it (e.g., saying sorry)” (guilt) and “My child wants me to come over and take a look when he/she has accomplished something difficult” (pride). The MEQ has been validated in a study with caregivers of 377 children between 2.5 and 6.5 years of age, asking them to rate how much each item represented their child’s behavior. One big step towards examining how moral emotions develop over time in different groups of children, and how individual differences play into this – allowing us to understand children who are at risk and offering them support early on.