Young children are notoriously bad at sharing, but their sense of fairness may be culturally determined. Children from Western cultures are more likely to reject an offer that unfairly benefits them than kids from other countries.
Previous research on Western children found that 4-year-olds will sacrifice a material reward, as well as that of another child, if they think that they have received less – possibly out of spite. But as they get older, they will also turn down a reward to prevent another child from losing out.
To find out if this is true more generally, Peter Blake at Boston University and Katherine McAuliffe at Yale University and their colleagues played an inequality game with 866 pairs of children from Canada, India, Mexico, Peru, Senegal, Uganda and the US. In each game two children were allocated different numbers of treats, with one asked to decide whether to accept or reject the amount on behalf of both.
Universal form of fairness
Children from all cultures rejected receiving less themselves – although the age from which they started doing so varied from 4 to 6 in the US and Canada, to 10 in Mexico. This could suggest this form of fairness is universal, say Blake.
However, only children from the US, Canada and Uganda rejected an allocation that was more favourable to themselves. In these kids, this behaviour appeared between the ages of 10 and 12. “It doesn’t mean that children in the other locations don’t have a sense of fairness, but this kind of fairness behaviour seems more likely to be shaped by culture,” Blake says.
Exposure to inequality
One possibility, the researchers suggest, is that the more market-driven a society is, the more people are exposed to ideas of equality. “That may sound counter-intuitive, but when you think about going to a marketplace you are trying to engage in a transaction that balances the scales,” says Blake.
Alternatively, children who grow up in non-Western societies may develop a different sense of fairness because they are exposed to less inequality in their everyday lives, Blake suggests; an idea which he now hopes to investigate further.
In this sense, Uganda is an anomaly. Blake wonders if it can be accounted for by the fact that the schools the children were drawn from contained some Western teachers, who might have shaped their cultural preferences. Further experiments are needed to test this, though.
“Their results are at least consistent with the pattern that we see across non-human species,” says Sarah Brosnan at Georgia State University in Atlanta, who studies the evolution of decision-making and fairness in non-human primates. She believes that the more universal sense of fairness is a mechanism by which individuals can learn something about the value of their social partners – such as whether or not they are cheats.
Are you a good partner?
Aversion to someone else missing out is less obviously beneficial, but it may reduce your chances of losing a useful partnership, she suggests.
“If you and I have a great cooperative relationship, then I somehow benefit more than you, you might get irritated and eventually decide that I am not a good partner,” she says. “This seems to be very, very rare in the animal kingdom; thus far good evidence has been found only in chimpanzees.”
The discovery that only some groups of children develop this behaviour by early adolescence doesn’t necessarily show other cultures lack a sense of fairness, says Joe Henrich, Canada Research Chair in Culture, Cognition and Coevolution at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “Ideally, you want [to measure] the entire developmental trajectory, or at least until some adult plateau,” he says. “It also highlights the need for taking the next step: researchers need to go beyond merely documenting human psychological diversity and begin to move toward explaining it.”
Journal reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature15703