Katherine McAuliffe

Katherine McAuliffe

Children around the globe recognize and respond to scenarios that put them at an unfair disadvantage to their peers, while children in only a few societies correct conditions that place them at an unfair advantage over others, a Boston College researcher and her colleagues reported in a recent edition of the journal Nature.

Assistant Professor of Psychology Katherine McAuliffe was among a team of psychologists, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists that devised a pioneering experiment to study how fairness develops in seven different societies. The researchers used an economic game – where candies and snack pieces served as rewards – to conduct their study with 866 pairs of children between the ages of four and 15, living in the nations of Canada, India, Mexico, Peru, Senegal, Uganda and the United States.

“This is the first study to look at how fairness develops across different societies and highlights interesting variation in the onset of responses to both forms of unfairness,” said McAuliffe, a leading co-author of the report, “The Ontogeny of Fairness in Seven Societies,” along with Peter Blake of Boston University. “Cross-cultural work in developmental psychology is in its early days so the hope is that this kind of work will become more common so that we can learn more about the interaction between culture and cognitive development.”

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 US, Canada and Uganda – did an aversion to an unfair, superior position emerge and when it did, the children were in late childhood, or about nine 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?

Assistant Professor of Psychology Katherine McAuliffe
Photo by Lee Pellegrini
Illustration of the apparatus and allocations for disadvantageous inequity
Image in Nature

In all seven populations studied, children would sacrifice a food reward to prevent their peer from receiving a greater amount, the team found, indicating that an aversion to disadvantageous inequity “is a more general feature of human behavior” – perhaps influenced by a need to maintain competitive standing among peers.

Or, according to McAuliffe and her colleagues, the results could reflect what children learn from their elders. Children rejected disadvantage as early as age four, and as late as age 10, giving researchers a sense that rejecting disadvantage could also be influenced by cultural factors.

These findings, as of yet, may have no clear-cut explanations, according to the team, which included researchers from Harvard University, Simon Fraser University, St. Francis Xavier University, the University of Utah and Senegal’s University of Cheikh Anta Diop. Previous research indicated that Western societies tend to place an emphasis on equality, which may have created social pressure on the children to act on that sense of fairness at an earlier age.

That Uganda was the only non-Western society where children in the experiment rejected advantageous inequity may be a function of the emphasis on fairness in Ugandan society. But it could also be tied to the fact that the students who were part of the experiment attended schools where Westerners teach and may advance their own cultural norms, said McAuliffe.

“This is the kind of thing we really want to go back to and understand,” she said.  

The findings may be just a start to better understand why people around the world behave similarly or differently, the societal and cultural forces at play upon children and adults, and the varied experience of childhood development.

“This is a very nice, isolated case of distributive justice – more versus less,” said McAuliffe. “In the real world, it is a much more complex scenario. But this allows us to begin to develop a picture of how justice develops from the ground up.”