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Infants Understand Concept of Fairness

Are kids born with an innate sense of fairness? A new study answers affirmatively, finding that children develop a sense of fairness before they are two years of age.

University of Illinois researchers said that they found that 19- and 21-month-old infants have a general expectation of fairness, and they can apply it appropriately to different situations.

Investigators performed two experiments analyzing infant responses as they watched live scenarios unfold.

In the first, 19-month-olds saw two giraffe puppets dance around at the back of a stage. An experimenter arrived with two toys on a tray and said, “I have toys!” “Yay!” said the giraffes.

Then the experimenter gave one toy to each giraffe or both to one of them. The infants were timed gazing at the scene until they lost interest.

Researchers believe longer looking times indicate that that a baby finds something odd or unexpected. In this experiment, three-quarters of the infants looked longer when one giraffe got both toys.

In the second experiment, two women faced each other with a pile of small toys between them and an empty plastic box in front of each of them.

An experimenter said, “Wow! Look at all these toys. It’s time to clean them up.”

In one scenario, one woman dutifully put the toys away, while the other kept playing — but the experimenter gave a reward to both the worker and the slacker. In another scenario, both women put the toys away and both got a reward. The observing 21-month-old infants looked reliably longer when the worker and the slacker were rewarded equally.

“We think children are born with a skeleton of general expectations about fairness,” said researcher and doctoral student Stephanie Sloane, “and these principles and concepts get shaped in different ways depending on the culture and the environment they’re brought up in.”

Some cultures value sharing more than others, but the ideas that resources should be equally distributed and rewards allocated according to effort tend to be innate and universal.

Researchers believe other survival instincts can intervene. Self-interest is one, as is loyalty to the in-group — your family, your tribe, your team. Investigators believe it is much harder to abide by that abstract sense of fairness when you want all the cookies — or your team is hungry.

That’s why children need reminders to share and practice in the discipline of doing the right thing in spite of their desires.

Still, said Sloane, “helping children behave more morally may not be as hard as it would be if they didn’t have that skeleton of expectations.”

This innate moral sense might also explain the power of early trauma, she said.

Aside from fairness, research has shown that small children expect people not to harm others and to help others in distress.

“If they witness events that violate those expectations in extreme ways, it could explain why these events have such negative and enduring consequences,” said Sloane.

Their findings are published in the journal Psychological Science.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Infants Understand Concept of Fairness

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Infants Understand Concept of Fairness. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 20 Feb 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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