Distinguishing fantasy from reality: Preschoolers' judgments regarding realistic and cartoon moral transgressions

Kristen Peters Bierwirth, Fordham University


The purpose of this study was to examine preschoolers' informational assumptions about distinctions between realistic and cartoon moral transgressions. Seventy-two children (33 three-year-olds, 39 four-year-olds) from regular education preschool programs in New York City participated in the study. Participants provided judgments regarding the permissibility, seriousness, deserved punishment, and degree of punishment for transgressions involving hitting, pushing, stealing, and failing to share. Participants' judgments were also analyzed in comparison to their ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy in storybook pictures and their television viewing habits (i.e., number of cartoons watched, frequency of television viewing per week). The results of the study demonstrated that preschoolers are able to provide relatively sophisticated moral judgments about the impropriety of moral transgressions, regardless of their basis in real-life or cartoon context, when given visual aids to assist them in their verbal responses. Preschoolers were able to recognize qualitative differences between types of transgressions. Cartoon transgressions involving physical harm (i.e., hitting, pushing) were judged as significantly more serious than realistic transgressions. Hitting, regardless of the realistic or cartoon context, was judged as significantly more serious and deserving of more punishment than failing to share a book. Preschoolers tended to justify punishment for hitting and pushing because the act was severe and caused harm or negative consequences to another individual. Further, cartoon transgressions were more apt to be justified based on how the act affected an individual's welfare than realistic transgressions. Differences in preschoolers' judgments of cartoon versus realistic transgressions may be attributed to preschoolers' informational assumptions that the cartoon form is inherently a more exaggerated depiction than a realistic portrayal. Gender differences were found in that males judged moral transgressions, overall, to be more serious than females. Preschoolers' moral judgments were not directly related to their ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy in generalized circumstances nor related to their television viewing habits. Overall, the results of this study offered insight into children's moral understanding of realistic and cartoon transgressions, which provide implications for the impact of viewing transgressions in daily life (i.e., on the playground or the television screen) on children's moral reasoning.

Subject Area

Developmental psychology|Preschool education|Social psychology

Recommended Citation

Bierwirth, Kristen Peters, "Distinguishing fantasy from reality: Preschoolers' judgments regarding realistic and cartoon moral transgressions" (2006). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3208580.