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Babies More Likely to Tolerate Unfairness When It Benefits a Group Member

Babies More Likely to Tolerate Unfairness When It Benefits a Group MemberIn a new study, developed to test how race and fairness influence babies’ selection of a playmate, researchers found that 15-month-old babies mostly value fairness, unless an adult distributes toys in a way that benefits someone of their own race.

“Babies are sensitive to how people of the same ethnicity as the infant, versus a different ethnicity, are treated — they weren’t just interested in who was being fair or unfair,” said Monica Burns, co-author of the study and a former University of Washington psychology undergraduate student.

“It’s interesting how infants integrate information before choosing who to interact with, they’re not just choosing based on a single dimension,” she said.

For the study, published in the online journal Frontiers in Psychology, forty Caucasian 15-month-old babies sat on their parents’ laps and watched two Caucasian experimenters divide toys between recipients. One experimenter divided the toys equally, and the other divided the toys unequally.

Later, when the babies were given the chance to choose one of the experimenters as a playmate, 70 percent of the time infants chose the experimenter who distributed the toys fairly. This suggests that when individuals are the same race as the infant, babies choose fair over unfair individuals as playmates.

Next, the researchers investigated a more complex question: What would happen when an individual (of the same race as the infant) could benefit from unfairness?

In the next experiment, 80 Caucasian 15-month-old infants witnessed a fair experimenter and an unfair experimenter distribute toys to a white and an Asian recipient. Half of the babies saw the unfair experimenter give more to the Asian recipient; and the other half of the babies saw the experimenter give more to the white recipient.

When it was time to choose a playmate, babies seemed more tolerant of unfairness when the white recipient benefited from it. They picked the fair experimenter less often when the unfair experimenter gave more toys to the white recipient instead of the Asian recipient.

“It’s surprising to see these pro-social traits of valuing fairness so early on, but at the same time, we’re also seeing that babies have self-motivated concerns too,” said Jessica Sommerville Ph.D, University of Washington associate professor of psychology.

Sommerville is quick to point out that her findings do not mean that babies are racist. “Racism connotes hostility,” she said, “and that’s not what we studied.”

“If all babies care about is fairness, then they would always pick the fair distributor, but we’re also seeing that they’re interested in consequences for their own group members,” Sommerville said.

The results suggest that infants can take into account both race and social history (how a person treats someone else) when choosing the best playmate.

What the study does show is that babies use basic distinctions, including race, to start to “cleave the world apart by groups of what they are and aren’t a part of,” Sommerville said.

Source:  University of Washington

Babies More Likely to Tolerate Unfairness When It Benefits a Group Member

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Babies More Likely to Tolerate Unfairness When It Benefits a Group Member. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 20 Apr 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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