According to a new Yale study, negative attitudes towards plagiarism may be more universal than previously thought.

To investigate how attitudes towards plagiarism develop in young children, researchers investigated whether attitudes about copying others varied across American, Mexican and Chinese children.

While the researchers expected the Chinese children to show more acceptance of plagiarism due to the country’s emphasis on conformity, no children over the age of five from any of the countries exhibited tolerance of copying. The findings suggest that there may a developmental stage common across cultures that strongly influences attitudes about copying, said Fan Yang, lead study author and exchange scholar in the Yale Psychology Department.

“Kids are taught not to copy, but I suspect that’s not what’s really causing them to think that plagiarism is bad,” said Alex Shaw GRD ’13, study co-author and post-doctoral fellow at University of Chicago who was a psychology graduate student at Yale when he helped conduct the study. “Instead, kids get upset when other children copy their work and when they witness other people copy others’ ideas. Exposure to those negative reactions is what causes them to think copying is bad.”

The researchers were inspired by a previous study that suggested five and six year old American children are intolerant of plagiarism, while those aged three to four are not averse to copycats. In the study, children were exposed to three different videos of puppets drawing pictures that simulated forms of plagiarism or originality. The videos began with one puppet glancing to see what the other puppet was drawing. The puppet would then proceed to create his own picture that was either identical to the first puppet’s, shared a theme with it or was entirely unique.

While the three and four year old children showed no preference toward either of the three different puppets, all children in the five to six year age group rated the puppet who directly copied as being bad in comparison to the most creative puppet, whom the children deemed to be good.

Since America, China and Mexico have very different intellectual property rights, Yang said she found the results surprising. According to the 2009 Intellectual Property Rights Index, a measure of intellectual property protection across 115 countries in the world, the United States ranked second, Mexico ranked 55th , and China ranked 70th.

Yang, a native of China, said she expected the Chinese children to tolerate the plagiarism since the Chinese education system stresses understanding and copying principles rather than creating new ideas and challenging established knowledge. The country’s legal system has only recently imposed intellectual property rights.

The study did expose one difference among the three cultures, where the Chinese children had a more negative reaction to the similar case than the direct copying. Shaw said since China has a focus on conformism, the population may be more likely to see the similar drawing not as someone trying to be a little bit different, but as someone doing a bad job copying and a bad job at being original. However, he said more data is needed to investigate this finding.

“I don’t think this study can be used as evidence that the urge to protect our own ideas is innate” Laurie Santos, a Yale psychology professor who was not involved with the study, said in an email. “However, this study does suggest that the urge to protect our own intellectual contributions emerges relatively early in human development, and may be more common across cultures than we originally thought.”

This work suggests that there may be a developmental stage when children begin to care about ownership over an idea and not just physical objects, said Joshua Knobe, a Yale cognitive science professor who was not involved with the study.

The study does not imply that society and culture do not shape individuals at a young age, Yang said, but that it likely interacts with other factors throughout development. For Yang, one of the next steps is to study societies that rank even lower than China in protection of intellectual property, such as hunter-gatherer cultures, in order to examine if there is a universal developmental appreciation for the rights of intellectual property.

The study appears in the May 2014 edition of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.