"That worries me. The first finding about revenge is worrisome, but not surprising," said co-author Cecilia Wainryb, a U. professor of psychology whose study was published today in the journal Child Development.
"With this other finding, it says when I'm not under pressure, when my survival is not at stake, I'll steal if I get a chance. That speaks to a diminished sense of moral agency, a diminished sense of trust in others."
The study's authors did find that most of these displaced children were developing a moral framework that shunned violence and stealing, even in survival situations. But that framework became flexible when the kids were asked about retribution, and became even more pliable among older children.
"Overall, these findings unveil a reservoir of moral knowledge among war-affected children. Even the impoverished environments of war and displacement present youths with opportunities for reflecting on the intrinsic features of actions that harm others," the study states. "But these findings also point to potential vulnerabilities in these children's moral lives. It is possible that contexts underscoring concerns with survival might compromise children's ability to view themselves and others as moral agents, while contexts underscoring revenge might give rise to cycles of violence."
The findings may prove helpful to humanitarian organizations working to address the social costs of political upheaval. According to the United Nations, 50 countries are in armed conflict, displacing 23 million children. Over the past decade, wars have injured 6 million children and claimed the lives of another 2 million.
For the U. study, researchers focused on the Bogotá slum of Usme, "a vast warren of concrete homes and plywood-and-aluminum shacks" featuring one of the largest concentrations of people displaced by the Colombia's 50-year civil war. With a homicide rate of 3.3 per 10,000 residents, the slum, population 230,000, endures half as many killings as the entire state of Utah.
A local humanitarian group recruited the children and youths, who were interviewed in Spanish by lead author Robert Posada, himself a Colombian who recently completed his doctorate at the U. and has returned to his homeland to pursue a university career. Almost half the children had seen a dead body and a third witnessed someone being shot or shot at.
"We speculate that because these kids are exposed to so much violence and engage in violence themselves they might not go through the same process that kids from say, Salt Lake City, would go through," Wainryb said. "Research shows all kids go through minor moral violations. Kids engage in moral dialogue on these violations. This is the normal moral stuff we do day in and day out.
"For [war-affected] kids, because they are in this environment of perpetual lawlessness, there's no space for them to engage in moral conversation."