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Child development

Five-year-olds insist on fairness

Munich, 04/23/2013

A new study carried out by LMU psychologist Markus Paulus pinpoints when young children develop a concept of fairness and react to perceived injustice in the distribution of resources.

The term “distributive justice” is not one that comes trippingly off the tongue of your average 5-year-old, but youngsters of that age are already sensitive to violations of the principle itself. A research team led by LMU psychologist Markus Paulus has just reported that, when it comes to sharing resources, 5-year-olds can identify who has been hard done by and who has received too much – and they demand redress. “Our study shows, for the first time, that pre-school children will not only take a third party into account when they share with someone else, they also take care that each in the group gets a fair share. Thus the notion of fairness is already very strongly developed at that age,” says Paulus.

The study investigated the actions and reactions of 3- or 5-year-old children in an experimental situation involving three players. In the experiment, the child was given some toys, the second player received lots more, and the third got none at all. The empty-handed player then asked the child for some of her toys. Three-year-olds promptly parted with some of theirs without taking any notice of the third, rich, member of the group. The 5-year-olds also willingly shared some of their riches with the poor player. However, unlike the younger children, they also demanded of the second player, who had more toys than they did, that he should give the third player a share of his bounty.

The rich have a duty
Markus Paulus and his colleagues were able to show that the 5-year-olds have already acquired notions of normativity and social obligation, and can express these verbally. In the experiment described above, the child would point out that the other player had more to give, for instance. A further experiment confirmed that this response was motivated by considerations of fairness. In this second case, the child was given the largest share. The 5-year-olds were then willing to give up more of their bounty to the destitute player, without explicitly involving the third player at all.

Markus Paulus sees in this result an important developmental step on the way to prosocial behavior and morality. Taking note of a third party in a dyadic sharing situation, then gauging the interests of, and the nature of the relationship between, the other two participants are tasks that require quite complex cognitive abilities. 3-year-olds think and act in terms of pairwise interactions, i.e. as if there were no third party present. 5-year-olds, on the other hand, have already developed a wider concept of fairness, a sense of truly social justice. The idea of distributive justice has become so important for them that they are willing to include more than two claimants in their actions. “In this sense, pre-school children behave in accordance with a socially accepted principle of justice. The one first called upon to part with some of what he has is the one who has the most to begin with,” says Markus Paulus.

Further work should define the conditions under which such sharing behavior breaks down. The newly published study is part of a long-term project designed to investigate the emergence of prosocial behaviors and the development of learning skills in young children, which is currently underway at LMU‘s Institute of Developmental Psychology. (Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 2013nh

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