A new study contends that the culture children are raised in influences their sense of fair play. The research, published Nov. 18 in the journal Nature, suggests that fairness, a key component of human civilization, does not develop in the same way and at the same pace in all cultures.
Previous studies with adults have shown that ideas of fairness vary across human societies, suggesting the potential role culture plays in shaping the development of fairness during childhood. “That variation has to start somewhere,” study co-author Katherine McAuliffe, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Boston College, wrote in a Nature article.
To determine if fairness is influenced by culture, McAuliffe and a team of psychologists, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists traveled to seven countries – the United States, Canada, Mexico, Peru, India, Senegal and Uganda – and tested 866 pairs of children ages 4 to 15.
The researchers measured two aspects of fair decision-making: How children react to disadvantageous inequity – where they see a peer get a greater reward, and how they react to advantageous inequity – a reverse scenario where they get a larger reward.
The test involved pairing children of the same gender and age. The children sat across from each other with a machine between them that had two trays with candies. The amount of candies on each tray varied – sometimes it was equal and sometimes it was not.
The experiment was designed to have the decision-making child pull a green handle to accept his allocation of candies. This would allow the candies to fall into red bowls in front of each child. If the child decided to reject his allocation and pulled a red handle, all the candies fell into a silver bowl and neither of the children received treats.
In roughly half the pairs, the decision-maker was put at a disadvantage – the offerings gave the other child more or equal amounts of candy. The remaining pairs were placed in the opposite situation, where the decision-makers could opt to take more for themselves. Rejecting unequal offerings more often than equal ones evidenced a sense of fair play.
Findings showed that children from all seven countries eventually rejected offers that gave the other child more candy. “This suggested to us that this form of unfairness – that is, a negative reaction to getting less than others – may be a human universal,” McAuliffe told HealthDay.
However, in the U.S., Canada and Uganda, children also rejected offers that gave them more candy, particularly if they were 8 years or older. This suggests that a sense of fairness transitions from focusing on the self to focusing on others, said the researchers.
“What we think is happening in the U.S. and Canada is that equality norms are often emphasized for children in Western societies,” explained McAuliffe. “It seems likely that children from those two cultures are aware of those norms and adhere to those norms.” Because children tested in Uganda were from schools that tended to have Western teachers, McAuliffe speculated they were also exposed to the same norms.
The authors acknowledge that the study does not prove the same fairness norms do not exist in other cultures, but rather that they did not find it in young children and early adolescents. “It could just be that this is something kids in the U.S., Canada and Uganda are pushed towards early on, and we can speculate that in other cultures this is something that emerges later, when they are adults,” lead author Felix Warneken, PhD, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University, said in a news release.