child

Photo: lifehacker.com

Parents have their work cut out for them as it is, but the ordeal becomes even greater when they’re faced with an unscrupulous judge – their own children. We all know the drill: crying out loud, feet stumping, all glared with the oh-so familiar phrase: “IT’S NOT FAIR!!!”. Well, seems like in some instances children can teach us a thing or two about fairness. The kind of thing a lot parents forget – having a god damn backbone!

Put your money where your mouth is

A study by researchers at Harvard University found that children from a tender age have an advanced idea of fairness and are willing to step forward and pay a personal price to intervene a situation they perceive as an unfair. This decision is group-biased dominant in children aged six or less, but those aged eight or more were found to intervene in unfair situation and stop any selfish behavior, whether or not the victim was a member of their group.

“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 Warneken. “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.”

The researchers divided 64 children into two age groups (six and eight years old) and asked them to a play child-friendly version of the economic games used in other studies. Before the games commenced, the researchers established a group identity using “minimal group paradigm” in which researchers assigned each child to a team identified by the colors blue and yellow, rather than using pre-existing groups like race or hair color that children were already aware of. Thus, children were assigned colored T-shirts, drew using their exclusively markers of their assigned color, wore blue or yellow party hats, and so on. 

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After testing to ensure the children showed preferences for their own group, each was presented with an apparatus showing how children — represented only by paper bags marked with faces and hats showing which color team they were on — had divided up six Skittles candies the day before. Children were then asked to be a third-party judge of whether the split was fair.

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If the child approved of the division, the participants were told, the other children would receive the candy. If not, children in the study had to sacrifice one of their own candy pieces, and the candy belonging to other two players would be thrown away.

Both age groups recognized unfairness and were inclined to intervene, but sensitivity against selfishness became more pronounced with age. This sensitivity was indeed influenced by the group they belonged too.

“In 6-year-olds, we found that there were two types of in-group bias,” Jordan explained. “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.”

For the 8-year-old group, things were significantly different. While they were still inclined to show leniency when selfish behavior came from a member of their own group, Jordan and colleagues were surprised to find that they were equally willing to punish selfish behavior that harmed members of either group.

“The 8-year-olds were less biased than the 6-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 findings, published in this week’s edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are most remarkable. They show that children have a well defined sense of fairness, and are willing to put ‘their money where their mouth is’. Next, the researchers plan to see whether this behavior is culturally influenced by conducting similar studies in Uganda and Vanuatu.

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