Watch Psychologists Destroy Kids’ Creations — for Science

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Apologies are one of the more interesting, richer forms of human interaction. There are so many layers going on: among others, the questions of when apologies are required, to what extent they can actually repair social fabric, and the differences between sincere-seeming ones delivered because the wrongdoer appears to actually feel remorse and contrived-seeming ones that appear to be delivered out of social or political expedience.

All these questions get trickier when the target of an apology is a little kid, because little kids are still developing socially, and are far from understanding how the adult world works. Examining how they process and respond to apologies, then, could yield useful insights into how children develop and are socialized. And for a new paper in Social Development, Marissa Drell and Vikram Jaswal of the University of Virginia tried to learn more about how kids understand apologies by knocking over a bunch of towers they were building. Well, that wasn’t all they did — they actually ran a carefully controlled experiment, of which tower-destroying was just one part.

Specifically, they invited 64 6- and 7-year-olds into the lab, where they were instructed to build a cup-tower of a certain height in a limited time period, with the promise of a reward if they could pull it off by the time the experimenter returned to the room. In the room with them was an undergraduate confederate of the experimenters (that is, someone “in” on the experiment with them, and acting according to a script) who was engaged in the same task, building their own tower with their own set of cups.

As they were instructed to beforehand, the confederate came over to the child’s tower at a specific point well into the game and reached for one of the bottom cups (a clearly disastrous one to remove), asking, “Can I have this one?” Almost all the kids said no and/or offered them a cup from their remaining stash. The confederate then withdrew without taking the cup, but in the process of doing so “accidentally” knocked into the tower, causing a cascade of cups (a “quite dramatic” one, note the researchers). In one of the experimental conditions, the confederate helped the kid rebuild; in the other three, they reassured the kid they’d be able to rebuild before the experimenter came back and returned to their own tower.

Twenty seconds later, the experimenter returned. The confederate acknowledged having knocked over the child’s tower, and from here the experiment split into the three remaining conditions: In one, the confederate offered a spontaneous apology; in the other, the experimenter insisted to them they apologize, at which point they did; in the final one, they didn’t apologize at all. Then the child was taken to a table where the experimenter asked them some questions about how they were feeling, about how they were feeling about the confederate who had knocked over their cup-tower, and how many stickers out of six they’d like to give to the confederate.

Here’s how the tower-destruction portion of the proceedings looked in the spontaneous apology condition — check out the kid’s expression right after her glorious cup-creation collapses:

Interestingly, the kids in the forced-apology and spontaneous-apology conditions felt equally crappy about what had happened, and no better (statistically speaking) than those who received no apology at all. The kids in the restitution condition, whom the confederate immediately helped to rebuild their fallen towers, were the least unhappy, by margin of almost two points on a ten-point scale. There were no significant differences between any of the conditions in how favorably the kids viewed the confederate, and the different conditions only barely affected how many stickers they offered (those in the apology conditions were offered the most, with no significant difference between the two types of apologies; those in the no-apology condition, the least). 

Overall, then, it didn’t seem like the kids could really differentiate between forced and spontaneous apologies, which is noteworthy in light of another study the experimenters ran, reported in the same paper, in which they went through basically the same procedure up until the point of the confederate asking for the cup, but with the confederate not actually knocking it over. In that experiment, the kids were then asked to imagine how they would have responded if the confederate had knocked over the cup, and the children said they’d view a spontaneous apology more favorably than a forced ones.

So why the divide between how the kids imagined they’d react and how they really did? The authors think this could be because the event caused such a sudden emotional jolt — three kids became upset enough that the researchers had to halt the experiment(!) — that the children couldn’t really process the apology; their cognitive resources were too taxed just trying to keep them calm. The idea, then, would be that in the restitution scenario, the act of having the transgressor help them rebuild greatly lessened the blow, leading them to recover more quickly and feel better about the whole episode.

You probably know these sorts of caveats by heart now, but: In this case, the kids in question were mostly white and middle-class, so it could be the case that different types of kids respond differently to apologies, or a lack thereof. It would also be interesting, the researchers noted, to bring the children back into the lab after some time had elapsed, meaning the cup-tower collapse wasn’t so fresh in their heads, and ask them the same questions. It might be the case that more of a cooling-off period would cause them to process the apologies differently, to be less affected by the pulse-pounding-to-a-kid experience of having a cup-tower you were working on get knocked over by a clumsy, lumbering big person.

As always, more research — this time, in the form of more adults knocking over more towers built by more kids — is needed.