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