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Even preschoolers can tell a good excuse from a selfish one

Your five-year-old can probably spot a cop-out.
Credit: Annelisa Leinbach / Big Think; Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Moral reasoning begins at an early age and becomes increasingly sophisticated during preschool years.
  • Research shows that three- and five-year-old children judge “good” reasons for breaking a promise slightly less negatively than “bad” reasons.
  • Five-year-olds are better able to justify their judgments of reasons why a promise is broken.

Breaking a promise is usually seen as a violation of trust, yet we understand that sometimes there are good reasons to break promises, such as when you have to help a family member in an emergency. Through moral reasoning, we learn that prosocial reasons for breaking promises are generally better than selfish ones. 

Research suggests that moral reasoning develops early: three-year-old children commit to their promises and can justify their promise-breaking, while five-year-olds have a more sophisticated understanding and appear to know that adults view altruistic reasons as being more legitimate

But how do young children judge other people’s reasons for breaking promises, and are five-year-olds better at this type of moral reasoning than three-year-olds?

Weighing excuses

To find out, Leon Li of Duke University and his colleagues recruited a total of 64 children — ages three or five — and showed them pre-recorded videos in which characters broke a promise and then gave their reasons for doing so. 

In the videos, which were shown in Zoom calls, pairs of animal puppets appear on the screen and promise to show the children a cool toy before exiting and reappearing 15 seconds later. In some of the videos, the pair displayed interesting toys upon their return. In others, the puppets showed nothing and gave either a “good’’ or “bad” excuse for not keeping their promise, or gave no excuse at all.  

Good excuses referred to helping somebody else (for example, “I had to help my friend with his homework instead”), while bad reasons referred to selfish desires (“I wanted to watch TV instead”). 

Each child viewed two videos in which both puppets kept their promises and three more in which they did not. One included a good versus a bad excuse, a second included a good excuse versus none, and a third included a bad excuse versus none.

Spotting cop-outs

After each video, the researchers asked the children, “Is there anything you want to tell me?” After watching videos where the puppets broke promises, the children typically tattled on them, which the researchers followed up by asking questions like whether what they did was wrong, why it was wrong or okay, which of the puppets they liked better, and which they’d prefer to invite to a playdate.  

All of the children judged the puppets’ promise-breaking negatively, but they judged puppets that gave a good excuse more leniently than those who gave a bad one or none at all. The different excuses did not, however, influence how much the children tattled on those puppets, liked them, or invited them to play.  

When asked to justify their judgments, the three- and five-year-olds differed. Whereas the three-year-olds were either uninformative or gave descriptive reasons — such as, “He didn’t bring his toy,” and, “I really wanted to see it” — the five-year-olds referred specifically to the puppets’ promises (“He promised to bring a toy, but didn’t”), or to their other obligations (“He should help his friend with his homework”).

The results, published recently in the journal Cognitive Development, suggest that three-year-olds view selfish and altruistic excuses for breaking a promise in the same way, whereas five-year-olds make a distinction between them. But the finding that five-year-olds did not like or invite the altruistic promise-breaking puppets any more than the others also suggests that they still have a limited understanding of the social implications of the different types of excuses. 

That is, they may not yet realize that an altruistic promise-breaker may be more likable than a selfish one.


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