Monday, 4 January 2016

By age 8, children already recognise the greater moral seriousness and consequences of criminal acts compared with mere mischief

At last, some actual data that could help guide judgments about the Age of Criminal Responsibility
The idea that children can't be held fully responsible for their crimes dates back thousands of years. Today, in many countries around the world, the principle is written into law as "The Age of Criminal Responsibility". For example, in the UK (excluding Scotland), the Age of Criminal Responsibility is 10, whereas it's as low as 7 in the US, but as high as 16 in Belgium.

Part of the reason for this huge variation around the world is likely that there is little published psychological research into children's understanding of criminal acts. A new Australian study, published in Legal and Criminological Psychology, helps address this shortfall, finding that children as young as 8 are just as capable as older children, teens and adults of recognising the greater seriousness of criminal acts, compared with mere mischievousness – an ability considered vital for a person be held criminally accountable for their actions.

Paul Wagland and Kay Bussey at Macquarie University presented dozens of White middle-class 8-year-olds, 12-year-olds, 16-year-olds, and young adults (average age 20) with 8 vignettes each, which described incidents relating either to assault, property offences, theft, or arson. The age and gender of the perpetrator in the stories was always adjusted to match the age and gender of the current participant. Half the participants read versions that were tantamount to a criminal offence, whereas the other participants read versions that described acts more akin to mere mischief.

For example, a criminal version of an assault vignette went as follows:
Eric/Erin was walking through the park. He/she saw somebody standing near the bubbler [water fountain] and decided to punch this person. As he/she walked past the person he/she pushed their head into the bubbler. The person was hurting a real lot after this but Eric/Erin thought it wasn’t enough so he/she punched into this person again. He/She hit the person many times in the face and body so that they could not even stand up.
A mischievous version of this kind of act went like this:
Eric/Erin was walking down the street. He/She noticed somebody sitting alone and decided to clip them over the head with his/her open hand. He/She walked past the person and swung his/her open hand through the air and got the person right on top of the head.
Another example: A criminal act of arson involved the protagonist deliberately starting a bush fire that grew out of control and led to houses burning down. A mischievous equivalent involved the protagonist setting a newspaper on fire on their back porch, and throwing it in a bin as soon at it caught light (after which it went out).

The researchers found that 8-year-olds, just as much as the other participants, rated criminal acts as more morally bad than mischievous ones, and they linked these harsher judgments with the more serious consequences of the criminal acts for the victims. What's more, the 8-year-olds were as capable as older children, teens and adults of recognising the illegality of the criminal acts and the consequences that would ensue, in terms of punishments, censorship from peers, and bad feelings about themselves were they to commit the criminal acts. Eight-year-olds were actually more likely than the other age groups to say that the criminal acts were unjustifiable.

The researchers said their results showed that children as young as 8 can appreciate the wrongfulness of criminal conduct and evaluate it differently from mischievousness. "This ability is an important component in the determination of the Age of Criminal Responsibility, and these results show that even 8-year-olds can possess this capacity," they said. Of course, as the researchers acknowledged, whether a child should be held criminally responsible for his or her actions depends on many other factors besides his or her understanding of the moral wrongness and seriousness of the acts, such as the ability to inhibit one's impulses. But this study has clearly contributed some much needed data on children's understanding of criminality.

"Future research is needed to replicate these findings with children from diverse socio-economic levels and ethnicities and those with a history of criminal offending before drawing policy implications," the researchers concluded.


Wagland, P., & Bussey, K. (2015). Appreciating the wrongfulness of criminal conduct: Implications for the age of criminal responsibility Legal and Criminological Psychology DOI: 10.1111/lcrp.12090

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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