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Even 6-Year-Olds Have Advanced Ideas About Fairness

Even 6-Year-Olds Have Advanced Ideas About Fairness

A new study suggests that children as young as six have advanced ideas about fairness, and are willing to pay a personal price to intervene in what they believe are unfair situations.

But the study also shows that when reacting to unfair behavior, younger children were biased toward members of their own social group. Children just two year older, however, were more likely to intervene to stop any selfish behavior, whether the victim was a member of their social group or not.

“People have looked at this phenomenon extensively in adults, but this is the first time we’ve been able to investigate it in children,” said Harvard psychologist Felix Warneken, Ph.D.

“The idea that children would care about inequity happening between individuals who aren’t there, that in itself is somewhat surprising. They care about justice or fairness and are willing to intervene against selfish actions, and are even willing to pay a cost to do that.”

For the study, researchers recruited 64 children — 32 six year-olds and 32 eight year-olds. The researchers then created groups by assigning each child to a team based on the colors blue or yellow.

The children then took part in a series of activities to reinforce their membership in their group. For example, members of the blue group wore blue party hats and were asked to draw a picture using only the color blue, the researchers explained.

Once the researchers were sure the children showed preferences for their own group, they then asked them act as third-party judges to determine whether the way other children had divided up six candies the day before was fair.

The children were shown paper bags with faces and hats showing which color team the children receiving the candy were on. The “judges” were told that if the six candies were deemed to be split up fairly, the other children would receive the candy. But if they weren’t, children in the study had to sacrifice one of their own candy pieces, and the candy belonging to the other two players would be thrown away.

The researchers found that children in both age groups showed a willingness to intervene against behavior they saw as unfair, but became far more sensitive to selfish actions as they got older.

Additionally, children showed in-group bias in the way they responded to selfish behavior, according to the researchers.

“In six year-olds, we found that there were two types of in-group bias,” said former Harvard undergrad Jillian Jordan, is now a Ph.D student at Yale. “First, they were more lenient in their punishment of selfish behavior that came from a member of their own group, and second, they were harsher in their punishment of selfish behavior that harmed a member of their group.”

While eight year-olds showed the same lenience when selfish behavior came from a member of their own group, the researchers said they were surprised to find that they were equally willing to punish selfish behavior that harmed members of either group.

“The eight year-olds were less biased than the six year-olds,” Jordan explained. “They were more willing to pay personal costs, and were less biased in the sense that they felt it was equally bad to treat people selfishly, regardless of what group they were in. They started to see out-group members as legitimate victims, or just as legitimate as in-group members.”

The researchers are exploring whether the same trends hold true cross-culturally by working with researchers conducting similar studies in Uganda and Vanuatu.

“It’s a very interesting and important question — the extent to which this is specific to our society,” added Katherine McAuliffe, a former Harvard Ph.D. student who is now a postdoctoral fellow at Yale.

“This study shows children aren’t just going to watch and let unfairness happen, they’re going to put their money where their mouth is, in a sense. When you think of these fairness norms, are they specific to Western culture or are they more general norms that children learn around the world?”

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: Harvard University 

Child defending fairness photo by shutterstock.

Even 6-Year-Olds Have Advanced Ideas About Fairness

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Even 6-Year-Olds Have Advanced Ideas About Fairness. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 19 Aug 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.