People want others to be rewarded equally for equal work, that is, they value fairness. However, previous research tends to conflate a desire for equality with a desire to be generous and increase welfare overall. Generosity is often directed toward those who have less, which often has the side effect of reducing inequality but is not necessarily motivated by a concern with equality. Would people still value fairness if it conflicted with generosity? We investigated this question in 6- to 8-year-old children and found that children value fairness even when doing so meant being ungenerous; children preferred to throw a resource away, even their own, rather than to share unequally by giving one recipient more than another recipient.

In our next set of studies, we investigated if children’s behavior in our previous experiments was driven by them wanting to be fair or merely appear fair to others. We found that, when children knew that an experimenter would be aware of their choice, they preferred to do the fair thing, discarding a resource in the trash rather than create inequality by taking it for themselves. However, when children believed that the experimenter would not be aware of their choice, they were considerably more likely to unfairly take the resource for themselves. These results demonstrate that children’s concern with fairness is at least partially driven by a motivation to appear fair to others.

Knowing that children are motivated to signal their fairness to others leaves open the question of why fairness behavior is seen as socially desirable and worthy of signaling in the first place. Although many researchers suggest that the goal of fairness is to avoid inequity, unequal pay for equal work, this answer is not the only possibility. We suggest that fairness concerns are rooted in an aversion to appearing partial to others. That is, inequity is acceptable if it does not entail partiality. To examine this, we investigated whether 5- to 8-year-old children endorse inequitable outcomes determined by an impartial procedure. We found that children were quite willing to use an impartial (but not a partial) procedure to create inequitable outcomes. This suggests that children’s fairness concerns are driven by an aversion to partiality, not inequity, because children thought creating inequity was fair if it was determined by an impartial procedure.

In discussion, I speculated on why a desire to avoid partiality may have evolved. On the surface, impartiality appears to be a bad strategy; it seems an individual would do best by delivering benefits only to his or her allies and expecting the same preferential treatment from them. However, open displays of favoritism could cause conflict with non-allies or less highly ranked allies who may see new alliances as a threat. It may therefore be a good strategy to conceal open displays of favoritism and instead make efforts to strengthen or initiate alliances primarily in private. This leads to a possible explanation for why fairness might have evolved: for people to avoid being condemned by third parties for demonstrating or initiating alliances through

preferential sharing. I further suggested that, contrary to many theories in the literature, fairness
did not evolve to increase reciprocity because fairness can often interfere with reciprocity when three or more people are involved in an interaction; fairness (avoiding the appearance of partiality) can lead people to not reciprocate previous generosity.

Understanding the different psychologies that underlie resource sharing is quite important as conflicts over resources are ubiquitous in the classroom and on the playground. If people do indeed have these different psychologies, then certain instructions from adults may have counterproductive effects on children’s behavior. If you insist that children share, this may reduce their selfishness and make them more likely to think about being generous and fostering reciprocity with others but can also lead to insular groups of friends who exclude others while sharing with each other. Similarly, if you want to promote generosity in the classroom, telling children to be fair may often achieve this but can lead children toward inefficient decisions to waste resources.

Understanding these psychologies is essential if teachers and parents want to make sure that children are internalizing the desired lesson from their messages.

Listen to TVOL’s interview of Alex Shaw

Published On: June 25, 2014


  • Steve Davis says:

    From the article; “…children preferred to throw a resource away, even their own, rather than to share unequally by giving one recipient more than another recipient.”
    Wow. So much for kin selection.

  • Mark Sloan says:

    Excellent article!

    However, from the perspective of morality as the product of evolutionary processes, a preference for fairness is an in-group strategy for maintaining the benefits of cooperation. This preference for fairness sometimes becomes a preference for only the appearance of fairness when the individual being treated unfairly is someone other than one’s self. This appearance of fairness still works as an in-group cooperation strategy as long as it is not found out.

    While people have a preference for appearing impartial within one of their in-groups (such as family, friends, or in a classroom) – consistent with maintaining cooperation – , they also have a preference for partiality toward their in-groups (such as, family, friends, and classrooms) relative to out-groups. This is also consistent with maintaining cooperation, just only within in-groups.

    To increase cooperation in a classroom, teachers might consider engaging our moral machinery (moral biology) by emphasizing concern for each other (the classroom or school as a group) and to trigger groupishness feelings on an even more primitive level, group synchronous activities such as dancing or singing, or competition of some kind with other classrooms. On the other hand, competition within the classroom can be expected to commonly decrease cooperative behavior.

    I see the experimental results as supporting the view that fairness evolved “to increase reciprocity” (to increase cooperation by increasing the perception that everyone is part of an in-group). I do not see the experimental results as contradicting that conclusion.

    • Helga Vieirch says:

      The punishing of hoarders, the punishment of meanness, is a strong motivation, apparently, even in young children. http://medicalxpress.com/news/2011-11-babies-embrace-earlier-previously-thought.html

      So this study is in line with others: See “…We show that humans punish cheats only when cheating produces disadvantageous inequity, while there is no evidence for reciprocity. This finding challenges the notion that punishment is motivated by a simple desire to reciprocally harm cheats and shows that victims compare their own payoffs with those of partners when making punishment decisions.

      Social control is about punishment of those whose behaviour in some way causes convict or harm to others.. it is also, at least among hunter-gatherers, used to shame hoarders.. it seems to be related to inequality aversion, rather than desire for reciprocity. Like the officer taken prisoner with his men, who then strips off his rank insignia and goes into the same place as they rather than accepting any better treatment conventionally given to officers… this takes guts, and it means throwing your lot in with those to whom you feel loyalty. People in many cultures accord this with much higher respect than merely reciprocal actions. Mere reciprocity or tit for tat strategy reeks of self-interest. Among hunter-gatherers, when groups who are form different language communities meet (as they often do since territorial overlap is common) they avoid any actions that appear to seek reciprocal material trade or benefit. They are even cautious about exchange of gifts, which are similarly tainted. Only those in an individual’s trusted network of family and friends can allow themselves the pleasure of giving gifts. Otherwise, a gift is seen as bulldozing your way into a position of trust. This is rude and may even lead to having the gift thrown into the face of the giver. they have a saying in the groups I knew in the Kalahari “gifts make slaves”.

      This is part of our evolved human nature, and it still works today in the same way in every culture. A “job” by the way, is a “gift” of this kind. So ii is with most cultures where exchange of goods and services becomes a major part of the economy, that special language and role-playing is adopted, to avoid the danger of mutual insult. We all know it shields people form mistaking your paying for food in a market, or getting a pay check, for any sign of a relationship of trust and friendship, although we may resent these transactions (instead of merely regarding them as “impersonal”) if they take place in a situation of so much inequality that we are left with no choice but to sustain our lives mainly by means of such interactions.

      Hunter-gatherers understandably look down on such “impersonal” tit-for-tat reciprocal exchanges (food or wages in exchange for labor or material products) as a poor substitute for the kind of relationship that seeks nothing in exchange for treating others as you wish to be treated (the golden rule) since it is an adaptive aspect of human cognition to recognize that as the way to the mutuality that we call “trust and honour”. We humans have no other source of reputation other than ways we can demonstrate to others this willingness to show loyalty, even at cost to ourselves. Human reputation offers a ranking system completely different in its biological underpinnings from the mere wariness and fear based dominance hierarchies of many other species, including Pan troglodytes. Our ranks are based on respect and trust (honour) achieved by demonstrations of – loyalty to PERSONS – and that cannot be done by means of mere reciprocity. Ultimately an altruistic agenda can not be about self-interest, or it will be suspect. Our individual rank within any social group is based on reputation, not intimidation. So the acts of physical threat and harm that one person can do to someone in their power – a policeman to an arrested person, a soldier to a captured enemy, a teacher to a misbehaving student etc.. do nothing to enhance the rank of the intimidator. Donald Trump has been wealthy all his life, but he is outranked by this man: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTsMTIofG2Q

      This appears to be largely instinctive and the basis for the hyper sociability and cooperative nature of humans. It is the fundamental aspect of what has been called our “social brain”.

  • Michael Thurm says:

    Whould be fair to mention the photographer.

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