When Do Children Start to Hate Inequality?

Research has shown that children as young as three are willing to share resources with others, but thus far little is known about how children actually feel about those decisions. For example, are they happy about giving away some of their resources, or do they just do it because they think that’s what society wants them do?

A recent study aimed to answer this question by examining the emotional reactions of kindergarteners, 2nd graders, and 4th graders to their decisions in the dictator game. The results show that while a majority of kids choose to give away half their resources by the time they reach 2nd grade, it is not until 4th grade that they feel satisfaction from their decision to curb inequality.

We present two studies (using the dictator and ultimatum games) suggesting that young children (5-6 years old) are aware of the norms of fairness but choose to act selfishly and prefer not to share. Slightly older children aged 7-8 adopt these norms in their actual behavior but do not feel happier when they share half of their endowments than when they share less than half. Finally, true inequity aversion only appears at the ages of 9-10, when children not only give more, but they correspondingly also feel better when their endowments are equally divided.

The study demonstrates that although kids will fight inequality because they think it’s the right thing to do, it is not until they’re older that they actually get satisfaction from doing the right thing. In other words, even when kids know what they should do, it takes a few years for that action to also become what they truly want to do.

The study also means that 2nd grade teachers worrying about unequal pencil distribution leading to an “occupy the classroom” situation can probably breathe a sigh of relief. Fourth grade teachers may not be so lucky. —————————————————————————————————————————————
Kogut, T. (2011). Knowing what I should, doing what I want; From selfishness to Inequity aversion in young children’s sharing behavior Journal of Economic Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2011.10.003

One Response to When Do Children Start to Hate Inequality?

  1. Doesn’t it seem kind of interesting that these stages of selfishness roughly corresponds to children becoming school age. They learn early that selfishness is not usually an acceptable strategy and then become advocates of “fairness” However, teachers then have to deal with hearing from kids “that’s not fair” because the kids have yet to learn that life isn’t always (and rarely is) truly fair. More power to the kids that don’t lose that intermediate stage of belief in equality and fairness.

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