Current conceptions regarding children’s
understanding of promises (and promise breaking) rely upon absolute
distinction: namely, a promise versus a non-promise. The current study expands
the understanding of children’s judgments of broken promises to include more
nuanced, refined descriptions. Utilizing a four-point rating scale—ranging from
“OK” to “very bad”—forty children aged 6 to 10 judged story cards depicting
characters breaking commitments not to engage in specific behaviors across
three different domains (moral, social-conventional, and personal). Analyses
indicated that children judge broken promises in the moral domain more severely
than those in the social-conventional domain and broken promises in the
social-conventional domain more severely than those in the personal domain.
Therefore, children appear to judge broken commitments on a sliding scale in
much the same way they judge actions from the moral, social-conventional and
personal domains. Results from the current study also suggest an inverse
pattern of judgment with regards to broken commitments. Specifically, it
appears that the more severely an initial action is judged, the less severely
its concurrent commitment condition is judged; and vice versa. These findings
help refine our understanding of childhood interpretations of broken promises
and engender several unique ideas for future research in this field.
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