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Fairness, punishment and prosociality in children

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  • Full or part time
    Dr K Jensen
  • Application Deadline
    Applications accepted all year round
  • Self-Funded PhD Students Only
    Self-Funded PhD Students Only

Project Description

Children can be surprisingly kind to others and they can be savvy negotiators. They can also be selfish and even nasty. To understand the origins of the social nature of humans, children are a fantastic – and challenging – source of information. The PhD candidate will explore the nature of helping and sharing in young children, their sense of fairness, and their use punishment and spite in social conflicts. The studies will use innovative test apparatuses and procedures to probe the social motivations of children. This work will contribute to our understanding of the evolution and development of human morality.

The research will likely use approaches from experimental economics but other experimental options are available. Studies can build on work already done by Dr Jensen. One of these, already tested on chimpanzees, will examine how children respond to unfairness. It has been suggested that this “disadvantageous inequity aversion” is present in nonhuman primates, but some of the techniques to examine this have not been explored in children. To understand the motivation to help others, it is important to disentangle the tendency for children to copy others and to complete actions from a desire to see others achieve their goals. Or a desire to others fail – spitefulness is an underexplored and important social motivation. Another line of research will look at how children use punishment to shape the behaviour of others. Previous work with puppets shows that they are more sensitive to harm to the victim than to correction of a violator’s behaviour, but little is known about how they reward altruists and punish free-riders. Also of interest would be how cycles of punishment and reward are perpetuated and the effect this has on cooperation in groups.

Candidates are expected to hold, or about to obtain, an upper second class (or equivalent) in psychology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, economics or related subject. A Masters degree in a related would be an advantage.

This 4-year full-time PhD is open to candidates able to provide evidence of self-arranged funding/sponsorship and is due to commence in January 2017 onwards.

There is potential for to apply for funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Please note, if the successful candidate does not have a masters and is awarded funding from ESRC they will have to complete a Masters by Research degree followed by a 3-year PhD. However, if the successful candidate with ESRC does have a Masters degree they will complete a 3-year PhD project only.

Any enquiries relating to the project and/or suitability should be directed to Dr Jensen ([email protected]). Applications are invited on an on-going basis but early expression of interest is encouraged.

Funding Notes

This project has a Band 2 fee. Details of our different fee bands can be found on our website. For information on how to apply for this project, please visit the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health Doctoral Academy website. Informal enquiries may be made directly to the primary supervisor.


1. Jensen, K., Vaish, A., & Schmidt, M. F. (2014). The emergence of human prosociality: aligning with others through feelings, concerns, and norms. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 822.
2. Riedl, K., Jensen, K., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2015). Restorative justice in children. Current Biology, 25, 1-5.
3. Wittig, M., Jensen, K., & Tomasello, M. (2013). Five-year-olds understand fair as equal in a mini-ultimatum game. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 116(2), 324-337.
4. Vogelsang, M., Jensen, K., Kirschner, S., Tennie, C., & Tomasello, M. (2014). Preschoolers are sensitive to free riding in a public goods game. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 729.

How good is research at University of Manchester in Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 67.70

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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