When it comes to understanding fairness, young children get it

September 14, 2012 by Peter Reuell
“It’s one thing to say that those who work harder should get more,” said Felix Warneken, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard. “But to be in that situation yourself and have to give something up to make it so, that’s something different. What we have shown is that very young children are not only sensitive to that concept, but that it guides their behavior.” Credit: Stephanie Mitchell

Most parents like to believe that their children are more intelligent and insightful than the average person realizes. When it comes to concepts of fairness, they might be right, according to Harvard researchers.

A new study, conducted by Patricia Kanngiesser, a visiting graduate student from the University of Bristol, U.K., together with Felix Warneken, an assistant professor of at Harvard, suggests that may have a far more advanced concept of fairness than previously thought. The study, described in a paper recently published in , shows that children as young as 3 consider merit—a key part of more-advanced ideas of fairness—when distributing resources. Earlier studies had suggested that the use of merit didn't emerge until a few years later.

"What this finding demonstrates, I think, is that merit seems to be an essential part of the earliest forms of fairness that children display," Warneken said. "That challenges the idea that young children only have a very egocentric notion that everything should go to them, and shows that from a very early age they are sensitive to the work contributions partners make. Going forward, I think we can begin to rule out some of the earlier theories about merit—that it required a great deal of or sophisticated to emerge."

Importantly, the study shows that the notion of merit isn't simply an that children endorse, but one that they actually put into practice, even at a cost.

"It's one thing to say that those who work harder should get more," Warneken said. "But to be in that situation yourself and have to give something up to make it so, that's something different. What we have shown is that very are not only sensitive to that concept, but that it guides their behavior."

In the case of this new study, that behavior involved handing out stickers.

In the lab, children played what researchers called the "fishing game" alongside a puppet, using poles with hooks to lift containers filled with coins from a bucket. In some instances, Warneken said, the child collected more coins, in others the puppet did. Following each game, the child was given six stickers and was asked to decide how many to give to the puppet, and how many to keep.

To his surprise, Warneken said, the results showed that children used merit to decide how to distribute the stickers. The children always kept more stickers when they did more "work," or collected more coins. However, if the puppet collected more, about a quarter of the children gave the puppet more stickers, while most others distributed them evenly.

Those findings run counter to earlier studies, which suggested that children's concept of fairness evolves over time, with the idea of merit—that a person should be rewarded based on how much work he or she does—appearing by around age 7 or 8.

"The traditional model in psychology has been that children go through different stages of fairness," Warneken said. "Initially, they are selfish. By a few years old, they develop the idea of equality, that we should each get half, regardless of [whether] you worked harder than I did, or you need more resources than I do. Finally, somewhere around school age, they develop the idea of equity or merit."

The problem, Warneken said, is that the studies undergirding the traditional model were flawed.

Most relied on a similar structure—researchers would read clues to how children thought about cooperation by gauging their reaction to different stories. Such experiments, however, relied on increasingly complex stories to understand whether children understood concepts like merit, and most only tested what children thought about fairness.

"We thought that approach was too complex," Warneken said. "We were more interested in what children actually do. We can't say where it comes from, but I think we can conclude that for 3- to 5-year-old children, they are already paying attention to this principle."

Explore further: Young children share rewards based on merit

Related Stories

Young children share rewards based on merit

August 29, 2012
Young children take merit into account when sharing resources, according to research published Aug. 29 in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

Four-year-olds know that being right is not enough

August 18, 2011
As they grow, children learn a lot about the world from what other people tell them. Along the way, they have to figure out who is a reliable source of information. A new study, which will be published in an upcoming issue ...

Giving makes young children happy, study suggests

June 19, 2012
If it is indeed nobler to give than to receive, it may also make you happier – even if you're a toddler, according to a new study co-authored by three psychologists at the University of British Columbia.

Babies know what's fair

February 16, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- “That’s not fair!” It’s a common playground complaint. But how early do children acquire this sense of fairness? Before they’re 2, says a new study. “We found that 19- and ...

Recommended for you

Self-control may not diminish throughout the day

September 20, 2017
Our self-control may not be a finite resource that diminishes throughout the day, but we may still experience fatigue while persisting in a single task, according to a study published September 20, 2017 in the open-access ...

Researchers develop new tool to assess individual's level of wisdom

September 20, 2017
Researchers at University of San Diego School of Medicine have developed a new tool called the San Diego Wisdom Scale (SD-WISE) to assess an individual's level of wisdom, based upon a conceptualization of wisdom as a trait ...

Alcohol use affects levels of cholesterol regulator through epigenetics

September 20, 2017
In an analysis of the epigenomes of people and mice, researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine and the National Institutes of Health report that drinking alcohol may induce changes to a cholesterol-regulating gene.

Oxytocin turns up the volume of your social environment

September 20, 2017
Before you shop for the "cuddle" hormone oxytocin to relieve stress and enhance your social life, read this: a new study from the University of California, Davis, suggests that sometimes, blocking the action of oxytocin in ...

One in four girls is depressed at age 14, new study reveals

September 20, 2017
New research shows a quarter of girls (24%) and one in 10 boys (9%) are depressed at age 14.

Tablets can teach kids to solve physical puzzles

September 20, 2017
Researchers confirm that when 4-6 year old children learn how to solve a puzzle using a touchscreen tablet, they can then apply this learning to the same puzzle in the physical world. This contradicts most previous research ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.