Why do young children prefer flawless heroes?

Young children love Manichaean worlds where the lives of archetypal characters (real good and real evil) unfold and where doubts, temptations and cracks are forbidden. In stories, good guys should only do good and bad guys should only do evil. In a study published in Psychological Science, the authors explain the reasons behind this preference for perfect heroes; and much of the explanation comes from understanding brain development in children. To what extend does the brain play a role in how children perceive a character?

Christina Starmans and Paul Bloom, researchers in the Department of Psychology at Yale wanted to study how children perceived inner moral conflicts. To do so, they asked young participants ages 3-8 years old (and other older participants) to judge the characters in a story. For example, a child must clean up his room. In one case, the story describes an obedient character that carries out the task without question. In the other case, the character first wants to play, almost gives in to temptation, but finally ends up complying with the order. In this setup, while both protagonists clean up their room in the end, the first character is overwhelmingly preferred by young children when compared to the second (more tortured) character. Why do young children prefer the unhesitating character that obeys immediately without question?

Through 4 studies, the authors were able to observe an interesting developmental difference. Between ages 3 and 8, the children believe that someone (a character in this case) that performs and good deed without experiencing the slightest negative temptation is morally superior to a person that does the same thing but only after overcoming other desires. At this age, someone who does good effortlessly is more deserving than someone who acts similarly but after struggling with his or her inner demons.

The researchers explain that this preference for archetypal heroes is related to brain development in young children, to the values they attribute to the will to act and to the ability to control oneself. Until about 8 years of age, children perceive inner moral conflict as negative, but this changes as children get older... Over time, children begin to like and value more tortured heroes. Enough with infallible flawless heroes! With experience and time, children acquire the capacity for inhibition (being able to deprive oneself of certain desires or pleasures) and come to associate this capacity with success. By the age of 8, children begin to see the virtues of inhibition and appreciate characters that are able to overcome their weaknesses before acting positively.

For Christina Starmans, in adulthood: “it is the very presence of the desire to act immorally that allows our good actions to be seen as especially moral”… A study focusing on evil characters could shed further light on the topic. Perhaps it’s because he almost became a "nice guy’ that Darth Vador became a legendary bad guy?
Source: C. Starmans and P. Bloom, When the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Developmental differences in judgments about inner moral conflict, in Psychologicial Science, April 2016.

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