Do Children Understand Reputations?

In a world full of smartphones and newsfeeds people rarely do anything without thinking about how they will be perceived. That makes it important to learn more about when these concerns develop.  A new study by Peter Blake and Katherine McAuliffe on child reactions to inequity may offer an answer.

The researchers designed an experiment in which two children between the ages of 4 and 8 were presented with different amounts of candy. One child was the “decider.” He or she could accept the offer, which would lead to each child receiving their allotted portion of candy, or reject the offer, which would lead to the children getting nothing.  Three scenarios were tested. In the “equal offer” scenario both children received one candy. In the “advantageous” scenario the decider received four candies and the other child received one candy. In the “disadvantageous” scenario the decider received one candy and the other child received four candies.

As expected, Blake & McAuliffe found that children of all ages rejected the disadvantageous offers. They hypothesized this was due to the biological self-interest heuristic of “good for my neighbor = bad for me.” The interesting finding was how children responded to advantageous scenarios. Children under the age of seven tended to accept the advantageous offers, but once children turned eight they began to reject the offers even though they stood to benefit from them. Why?

The ability to act on those reputational concerns depends on an awareness of a social norm of fairness that applies generally and not just to the self.  At the very least, the current study shows that 8-year-olds are aware of this social norm for fairness.

Although it’s still unclear when concerns for other social norms develop, the finding has potential implications for the social development of children. At the very least it might explain the failures of parents who attempt to convince their six-year-old to take a bath by telling them it’s not fair to the clean kids.

On a slightly different note, I think it would be interesting to look at how teenagers perform on a variation of these tasks when compared with adults. Will teenagers exhibit behavior that confirms their…uh…reputation for being overly concerned with reputation?


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