Children’s Attribution of Emotions in Victimization Situations: Examination of the Happy Victimizer Task and its Relation to Children’s Moral Behavior

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Happy Victimizer
Emotion attributions
Moral development
Moral behavior

Children’s understanding of emotions in victimization situations has been investigated as a way to study children’s moral motivation. To assess this understanding, researchers have used a procedure known as the happy victimizer task in which children are asked to attribute emotions to victimizers who have performed an immoral action. In the present study I argue that this task is flawed in a number of ways that compromise the validity of the conclusions drawn from this research for the study of children’s morality. Following this critique, I propose an improved version of the task, the anticipated emotions version, in which the story character has not yet performed the immoral action and children are asked about emotions the character might feel. I analyze children’s attribution of emotions in the anticipated emotions version of the task and compare these with their performance on the standard task. In order to investigate possible processes that underlie children’s emotion attributions in victimization scenarios, I also investigate relations among children’s attribution of emotions, their social understanding (i.e., understanding of interpretation and mixed emotions), and their social history (i.e., parental style and number of siblings). Finally, I investigate how children’s emotion attributions are related to their moral behavior. One hundred and forty-four 5- to 8-year-old Portuguese children participated in this study. Results show a developmental shift from the attribution of positive to the attribution of negative emotions in the anticipated emotions version of the task when children attribute emotions to a hypothetical victimizer, and a decline of the attribution of positive emotions when children attributed emotions to themselves as if they were the victimizers. Children also attributed less positive emotions to a hypothetical victimizer in the anticipated emotions compared to the standard version of the task. Attributions of emotions were not related to children’s social understanding or to the assessed aspects of children’s social history. Also, no relation was found between children’s attribution of emotions and behavior. Implications of these results for the study of children’s moral development and moral behavior are discussed and future research is proposed.

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Jeremy Carpendale
Arts & Social Sciences: Department of Psychology
Thesis type: 
(Thesis) Ph.D.