A 9-year-old girl spent all day playing at a park near her home. She had a cell phone and a house key with her, and went home when she got tired. Was that dangerous? It sounds like typical behavior for a 9-year-old. But what if you knew she was there while her mother worked all day? Does that change anything about how dangerous her day at the park appears? An experiment shows that people don’t so much judge such a situation as dangerous because it’s objectivly dangerous, but because of how neglectful the parent appears. In fact, the morality of the reason a parent leaves a child unsupervised directly affects how dangerous the situation is perceived to be. Ashley Thomas, Kyle Stanford, and Barbara Sarnecka of the University of California at Irvine conducted an experiment that showed such bias.
To get at this question experimentally, Thomas and her collaborators created a series of vignettes in which a parent left a child unattended for some period of time, and participants indicated the risk of harm to the child during that period. For example, in one vignette, a 10-month-old was left alone for 15 minutes, asleep in the car in a cool, underground parking garage. In another vignette, an 8-year-old was left for an hour at a Starbucks, one block away from her parent's location.
To experimentally manipulate participants' moral attitude toward the parent, the experimenters varied the reason the child was left unattended across a set of six experiments with over 1,300 online participants. In some cases, the child was left alone unintentionally (for example, in one case, a mother is hit by a car and knocked unconscious after buckling her child into her car seat, thereby leaving the child unattended in the car seat). In other cases, the child was left unattended so the parent could go to work, do some volunteering, relax or meet a lover.
Not surprisingly, the parent's reason for leaving a child unattended affected participants' judgments of whether the parent had done something immoral: Ratings were over 3 on a 10-point scale even when the child was left unattended unintentionally, but they skyrocketed to nearly 8 when the parent left to meet a lover. Ratings for the other cases fell in between.
The researchers were motivated by an increasing number of parents who get into legal trouble for allowing their children to be unsupervised in situations that were once considered normal. The case of the 9-year-old girl was real, and her mother was arrested for child neglect. They talked about the research at NPR, and said the most surprising thing was how judgmental the participants were, and the most judgmental of all were mothers, who also overestimated the risk of danger the most. -via Digg
(Image credit: Flickr user Dave)