How Fairness Develops in Kids Around the World

Posted on November 23, 2015

Photo source: Flickr

You're sitting at a table with a friend and a stranger offers you some candy. Hooray! Who doesn't like candy? But wait! You're not getting the same amounts. One of you gets four delicious pieces, and the other gets a measly one. Does that feel unfair? Do you bristle? Do you forfeit your candy and your friend’s candy, because they’re unevenly distributed?

For decades, psychologists have argued that the answers depend on how old you are, and whether you're the one with the bigger or smaller share. Adults seem to reject inequality of any form, and will pay a personal cost to avoid it even if they stand to get a bigger slice of the pie. Children are more nuanced.

With the help of several other anthropologists, McAuliffe and Blake studied 866 children, aged 4 to 15, from the U.S., Canada, India, Mexico, Peru, Senegal, and Uganda. In every case, the kids were paired with a peer who got either less candy or more. If they accepted the allocations, both got their treats. If they rejected, neither received anything.

All the kids were prepared to sacrifice their rewards to stop their peers from getting more than them. Even though some kids came from small villages and others lived in a big city, they all showed the same aversion. “This is something that’s foundationally human and might be even more deeply rooted in our history as primates,” says McAuliffe.

Despite this universality, the team also found some interesting variations. For example, by 4 to 6 years of age, kids in the U.S. and Canada were already balking at receiving less, but the Mexican children only did so by 10 years. Is that because those children take longer to develop a sense of fairness, or understand fairness in a different way?

Blake and McAuliffe think not. They suggest that our dislike of receiving less stems not from some abstract consideration of fairness, but from a desire to keep a competitive edge, relative to our peers. “It's better for me if both of us have nothing than for you to have way more than me,” explains Blake.

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Category(s):Child Development, Values Clarification

Source material from The Atlantic

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