Children from low-income families who received intensive education early in life tend to treat others with high levels of fairness in midlife, even when being fair comes at a high personal cost, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications.
The new findings come from the Abecedarian Project, begun in the 1970s. To this day, the research project is one of the longest-running randomized controlled studies of the effects of early childhood education in low-income and high-risk families.
“The participants who received early educational interventions were very sensitive to inequality, whether it was to their advantage or their disadvantage,” said Dr. Yi Luo, first author of the study and a postdoctoral associate.
“Our research shows that investment in early childhood education, especially in the education of highly vulnerable children from low-income families, can produce long-term effects in decision-making even decades after the educational experience.”
For the study, 78 participants played games designed to measure their adherence to social norms and their social decision-making processes. In one game, a player was asked to split a sum of money ($20) with another participant.
The participant could either accept the amount offered, or reject it, in which case neither received any money. When faced with unequal offers, participants had to make trade-offs between self-interest and the enforcement of social norms of equality.
This is when the value of early childhood education became apparent. Middle-aged participants who had received intensive childhood educational training in the ’70s, including cognitive and social stimulation, were more likely to strongly reject unequal division of money among players. This was true even if it meant they would miss out on significant financial gains themselves.
“When someone rejects an offer, they are sending a very strong signal to the other player about the decision regarding how the money should be divided,” said Université de Montréal assistant psychology professor Dr. Sébastien Hétu, a first-author of the study.
“People who received educational training through the Abecedarian Project were inclined to accept generally equal offers, but would reject disadvantageous and advantageous offers. In effect, they punished transgressions that they judged to be outside of the social norm of equality.”
First developed and led by Dr. Craig Ramey, a professor and distinguished research scholar at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, the Abecedarian Project studies the effects of intensive early childhood educational interventions on language and learning in disadvantaged children.
The new study involves an international group of scientists led by Virginia Tech neuroscientist Dr. Read Montague, in whose laboratory Hétu was a postdoctoral associate before coming to Montreal.
Using computational modeling, the researchers also found differences in social decision-making strategies between participants. For example, in another game, players who had received early educational interventions planned further into the future than those who didn’t.
“Our results also suggest that they placed more value on the long-term benefits of promoting social norms as opposed to short-term benefits for personal gain,” said Luo.
Source: University of Montreal