If a new survey is any indication, kids who grow up in war zones lose track of their moral center and start to believe that stealing from or hurting others is OK if done in revenge.

Psychology researchers at the University of Utah report in a new study published in the journal Child Development have found that not only is revenge a kind of ticket to carry out acts of violence, kids in war zones almost always expect anyone to behave violently in daily life.

The findings, based on interviews with 96 Colombian children, are strong indicators that war will ultimately encourage kids to steal when they feel physically threatened, and they will view acts of violence as an option under any circumstance — threatening or not.

Most troubling about the study results, said co-author Cecilia Wainryb, a U. professor of psychology, is an abiding sense of distrust of others among children who live in war-torn areas.

The normal moral growth process seems to give in to a sense that violence and stealing that normally would not be an option becomes a alternative, especially the older the children are.

The research doesn't address the range of violence that being around childhood violence might induce. Ongoing childhood association and distrust in the homeland of Sulejman Talovic have been implicated in his shooting spree at Trolley Square on Feb. 12, 2007, that left six dead, including Talovic. As a little boy in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Talovic hid in fear from the Serb military forces who were slaughtering Muslim men and boys as war and genocide ravaged his country.

Talovic's neighbors here acknowledged that the war in Bosnia likely left its mark on the boy. During the war, the family lived for five years as refugees in Bosnia and spent almost a year in the mountains hiding from the Serb military forces, neighbors said.

Up to 200,000 people were killed and 1.8 million others lost their homes in Bosnia's 1992-95 war.

Children in about 50 countries worldwide are growing up in the midst of armed conflict. In Colombia, where almost 2 million children have been forcibly displaced from their homes over the past 15 years, the researchers sought to determine how living amid violence, lawlessness and deprivation affects the way children think about right and wrong.

"Overall, these findings unveil a reservoir of moral knowledge among war-affected children," Wainryb said. "Even the impoverished environments of war and displacement present youths with opportunities for reflecting on the intrinsic features of actions that harm others."

The results highlight a number of "vulnerabilities" for the moral compasses in these children, Wainryb and Roberto Posada, a native of Colombia and doctoral student at U., write in the journal paper. 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, they write.

According to the study, all participants said it is wrong to steal or hurt others because of considerations of justice and welfare, and most said it is wrong to steal or hurt others even when such actions can help ensure one's survival. When the question of revenge arose, however, the youths' judgments were mixed, with a sizable number endorsing stealing and hurting for that reason.

A majority of the participants also said they expected that people would steal and hurt others in most situations — a view that is strongest among teens.

The interviews have implications for children's behavior in the 50 countries that, according to United Nations' figures, are currently in sustained armed conflicts that have displaced about 22 million children worldwide just in the past 10 years. A civil war has been under way in Colombia for 50 years. Posada said that almost half the children in his homeland had seen a dead body and a third witnessed someone being shot or shot at.

Other research cited by the authors indicates that all children everywhere violate expected moral behavior. Kids exposed to so much violence and who perpetrate it themselves, however, have no chance to discuss or learn from those violations unlike children living in law-abiding regions of the world.


E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com