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Early Moral Cognition and Behavior

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Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00250

The Whistleblower’s Dilemma in Young Children: When Loyalty Trumps Other Moral Concerns

  • 1Department of Developmental and Comparative Psychology, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPG), Germany
  • 2Department of Psychology, University of York, United Kingdom
  • 3School of Neuroscience, University of St Andrews, United Kingdom

When a group engages in immoral behavior, group members face the whistleblower’s dilemma: the conflict between remaining loyal to the group and standing up for other moral concerns. This study examines the developmental origins of this dilemma by investigating 5-year-olds’ whistleblowing on their in- vs. outgroup members’ moral transgression. Children (n=96) watched puppets representing their ingroup vs. outgroup members commit either a mild or a severe transgression. After the mild transgression, children tattled on both groups equally often. After the severe transgression, however, they were significantly less likely to blow the whistle on their ingroup than on the outgroup. These results suggest that children have a strong tendency to act on their moral concerns, but can adjust their behavior according to their group’s need: When much is at stake for the ingroup (i.e., after a severe moral transgression), children’s behavior is more likely to be guided by loyalty.

Keywords: Intergroup cognition, group loyalty, morality, Whistleblowing, social cognition

Received: 21 Nov 2017; Accepted: 15 Feb 2018.

Edited by:

Kelsey Lucca, University of Washington, United States

Reviewed by:

Ben Kenward, Oxford Brookes University, United Kingdom
Xiao Pan Ding, National University of Singapore, Singapore  

Copyright: © 2018 Misch, Over and Carpenter. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Antonia Misch, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPG), Department of Developmental and Comparative Psychology, Leipzig, Germany,