Research at Boston University

All’s Fair

By Leslie Friday
Early Childhood

From the concept of sharing, to the hurdles children face in learning to read, faculty across Boston University are examining how early experiences shape children’s lives and the ways in which they learn. As parents, teachers, and caregivers strive to instill the emotional and cognitive skill sets needed for children to succeed, these three researchers are demonstrating that simple modifications to the ways we teach can have a profound impact on the ways we learn.

Photo by
Cydney Scott

Parents know what a potential minefield a play date can be. Two children could be playing happily together, each with their own toy, until they converge on one object coveted by both. Suddenly, that rocking horse means war.

Most parents stress the importance of sharing early on, whether at home with siblings or at the park with strangers. But that doesn’t mean their preschoolers are early adopters.

“The good news,” says Peter Blake, an assistant professor of psychology and director of the Social Development and Learning Lab, “is that kids do understand these norms of fairness, even from a young age, even if they don’t follow them.”

Blake should know. He’s a hands-on uncle and the coauthor of a paper published in March in PLOS One titled “I Should but I Won’t: Why Young Children Endorse Norms of Fair Sharing but Do Not Follow Them.”

Blake and his colleagues recruited dozens of 3- to 8-year-olds visiting the Living Laboratory at the Museum of Science in Boston to play the "Dictator Game," which is commonly used in economic studies and has participants divvy up resources between themselves and another person they’ll never meet. In this case, four scratch-and-sniff, smiley face stickers in the child’s favorite color were the currency.

Researchers expected a judgment-behavior gap for the younger set of children—meaning that the kids knew they should share equally, but would still favor themselves. They wanted to better understand why that gap exists. The researchers hypothesized that it could be for any of three reasons: children think the norm applies to others, but not to themselves; they think it applies to everyone, but that no one really follows it; or they are unable to control their desires, despite knowing what’s expected of them.

It turns out that Blake and his colleagues were completely wrong. All of the children said they and others should share equally and they predicted that others would do so toward them. But when it came to their individual actions, age made a difference. The 3- to 6-year-olds predicted they would favor themselves, while the 7- and 8-year-olds practiced what they preached.

“Kids were surprisingly honest in saying, ‘Well, actually I think I’d keep them all for myself,’” Blake says with a laugh. "In the situation we had them in, their parents are right there, so it’s not like they were concerned about what their parents thought of them."

When Blake asked them to explain their actions, younger children plugged more into personal desire, while older children talked about what was expected of them.

Interestingly, researchers failed to see a difference in children’s sharing habits when factoring in their gender or birth order, debunking common assumptions that girls are more altruistic than boys, or that kids with siblings are better sharers.

Taking all this into account, Blake says the results of the game indicate that children’s “self-interested bias diminishes over time” and may have something to do with “becoming a responsible individual.”

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