The team measured two aspects of fairness decision-making: how children react to disadvantageous inequity – where one child saw her peer receive a greater reward – and how they react to advantageous inequity – a reversed scenario where the child received the larger reward.
In all seven countries, taking steps to avoid being put at an unfair disadvantage emerged across all populations by middle childhood, the team reported. But children responded very differently when they were placed in a position of unfair advantage. In only three countries – the U.S., Canada and Uganda – did an aversion to an unfair, superior position emerge and when it did, the children were in late childhood, or about 9 or 10 years old, the researchers found.
The experiment is the first in an emerging inter-disciplinary effort to understand how humans in very different societies develop a sense of the seemingly universal value of fairness. Prior research suggested that adults have widely different approaches to fair resource sharing, which pointed to the potential role culture plays in shaping the development of fairness during childhood.
Earlier studies by other researchers have found generosity increases with age, and children in non-Western societies tend to share more than their peers in the West. However, the question remained: how and when do children in very different societies start to enforce fairness?
The team used an intuitive economic game that measured responses to disadvantageous inequity and advantageous inequity, and differentiated between the motives of generosity and fairness. Children in each pairing were randomly assigned to either a disadvantageous or advantageous position. The children were presented with different amounts of food rewards and one child could accept or reject the allocation of snacks – a decision that would affect their own payoff and that of their partner.