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How Children Make Moral Judgments: The Role of Counterfactual Thinking

A young child standing on a busy street, observing a homeless person discreetly taking food from a market stall. The child's face shows a mix of confusion and empathy, with a thought bubble above their head displaying questions like 'Why is he stealing?', 'Is he hungry?', and 'How can I help?'. The urban background includes buildings, street vendors, and a few passersby, creating a lively yet thought-provoking atmosphere
Moral Judgments in Chldren

Understanding how children make moral judgments is crucial for parents, educators, and anyone involved in childhood development. A recent study by Shalini Gautam, Ruby Owen Hall, Thomas Suddendorf, and Jonathan Redshaw sheds light on how children's ability to think about "what could have been" influences their moral judgments. This blog breaks down the study's findings and what they mean for understanding the development of moral reasoning in children.

What is Counterfactual Thinking?

Counterfactual thinking involves imagining alternative scenarios and outcomes that could have happened but didn't. For example, if a child breaks a vase, they might think, "If only I hadn't been running, the vase wouldn't have broken." This kind of thinking is essential for understanding consequences and making moral judgments about actions.

The researchers conducted two studies with 236 Australian children aged 4 to 9. The children were told stories about characters who experienced either good or bad outcomes. The characters either had a choice that led to these outcomes or had no control over the situation. The aim was to see whether the children's moral judgments were influenced by the actual outcomes or by the counterfactual choices that could have been made.

Younger Children's Judgments:

Children aged 4 and 5 based their moral judgments solely on the actual outcome of the story. They judged actions as good or bad depending on whether the result was positive or negative, without considering whether the characters had a choice in the matter.

Older Children's Judgments:

From age 6, children began to incorporate counterfactual thinking into their moral judgments. They started to consider not just what happened, but also what could have happened. For instance, they might judge a character more harshly if they made a bad choice when a better option was available.

Developmental Shift:

The study highlights a significant shift around age 6, where children begin to understand and use counterfactual thinking. This change marks an important development in their cognitive and moral reasoning abilities.

Implications for Parents and Educators

Understanding these findings can help adults support children's moral development in several ways:

Age-Appropriate Expectations:

Recognize that younger children (under 6) may not yet understand the complexities of moral situations involving choices and consequences. Their judgments are likely to be straightforward and based on outcomes.

Encouraging Reflection:

For older children, encourage discussions about different choices and potential outcomes. Ask questions like, "What else could the character have done?" or "What do you think would have happened if they chose differently?" This helps develop their counterfactual thinking and moral reasoning skills.

Teaching Through Stories:

Use stories and scenarios to teach children about moral decision-making. Highlight situations where characters have choices and discuss the different possible outcomes. This can be a powerful tool for helping children understand the importance of making good choices.

Supporting Moral Development:

Be patient with younger children as they grow and develop these skills. Provide guidance and support as they learn to think more deeply about their actions and their consequences.

The study by Gautam and colleagues provides valuable insights into how children develop moral reasoning. By recognizing the role of counterfactual thinking and understanding how it emerges around age 6, parents and educators can better support children's moral development. Encouraging children to think about different choices and their potential outcomes can help them grow into thoughtful and morally responsible individuals.


Gautam, S., Hall, R. O., Suddendorf, T., & Redshaw, J. (2023). Counterfactual choices and moral judgments in children. Child Development. doi:10.1111/cdev.13943


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