“Should I take one sticker from the nice person or two stickers from the mean person?”

Most children would rather have two stickers, but what do they do when their self-interests are at odds with their moral considerations? A new study from Yale University has the answer, and it might surprise you.

The study, led by Yale graduate student Arber Tasimi in collaboration with Marcia K. Johnson and Karen Wynn, revealed that children struggle with some of the same moral dilemmas as adults, such as when to abandon self-interest in dealings with those of questionable moral character. Previous studies have shown that both children and adults prefer to deal with good people over “mean” or “bad” people. But what happens when you add a cost-benefit, like a sticker or two, to the mix? Choices become more difficult, and people – including children – often hesitate before making a final decision.

Tasimi’s study randomly assigned 160 five- and six-year-old Connecticut elementary schoolchildren to two different groups. The first group of children was introduced to a person described as “nice,” and then introduced to a second, “neutral” person who was only described as wearing shoes. The second group was introduced to the neutral person and a second person described as “mean.”

Children in the first group opted for the bigger loot when offered one sticker from the nice person and two from the neutral person. In the second group, more than two-thirds of the children took a single sticker from a neutral character rather than two stickers from a mean one. However, the members of this group took significantly longer time to make up their minds, suggesting they struggled with the decision.

In a university press release, Tasimi said this suggests children are torn between self-interest and the desire to avoid dealing with wrongdoers. “These findings suggest that children’s decisions aren’t guided by simple rules like ‘always choose more’ or ‘always approach good people and avoid bad ones,’” he said in the release. “Rather, there seems to be a cost-benefit analysis going on.”

Kiley Hamlin, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, agrees with Tasimi’s interpretation of the findings. “The results suggest that young children are reluctant to interact with those who have harmed others, and that the roots of moral evaluation are present very early in life,” she says. “This paper is particularly interesting in that it shows that being ‘good’ and being ‘neutral’ are not particularly different in kids’ minds – it’s being bad that stands out.”

Should parents be alarmed that children hesitate when navigating self-interests and moral obligations?

According to Hamlin, there’s no reason to panic or worry that your child is traveling down a troubling road. “Although I am no expert on common moral dilemmas faced by young children, I assume many have to do with small transgressions – whether to sneak an extra cookie or to lie and say they’ve brushed their teeth when they have not,” she explains. “In addition, I assume children frequently must decide whether or not to be a whistleblower when someone else does something wrong; for example, cutting in line, taking more than one’s fair share, bullying, and so on. If the individual doing it is a friend or otherwise a valuable ally (popular in school, for example) children may struggle between what’s right and what’s personally valuable.”

Hamlin says parents should not be alarmed because as adults we struggle with such things all the time, and self-interest is not inherently wrong – in fact, it is crucial to human survival. The dilemma only becomes wrong when self-interest pits us against what’s “right.” The presence of struggle is a great indicator that a child perceives the conflict present in the situation and that they know what is morally good. Naturally they may choose the wrong path in some cases, but if there was no hesitation they would probably always take the personally beneficial path.

“This study should reassure parents that five-year-olds may heed their ‘beware of strangers’ advice,” says John Gibbs, a professor of developmental psychology at Ohio State University. “Although generally children will take larger gifts, it is significant that the child will eschew a gift, even a larger one, if the giver is mean.”

Previous studies have shown that some children acknowledge moral dilemmas and resolve them pro-socially as early as age three, the ability for children to acknowledge dilemmas and resolve them improves with age, and that children show a greater capacity to acknowledge dilemmas with support, including the support of parents.

What are your thoughts on children and moral dilemmas? Share your experiences in the comments!