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“I Should but I Won’t”

CAS prof studies children’s grasp of fairness, inequity

Boston University BU, Peter Blake, College of Arts and Sciences CAS professor, psychology research, child psychology and sharing, children cultural norms

Peter Blake, a CAS assistant professor of psychology, says that by age 8, most children know and follow cultural norms of sharing. Photo by Vernon Doucette

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, a College of Arts & Sciences 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 last month in PLOS One called “I should but I won’t: Why young children endorse norms of fair sharing but do not follow them.” His findings build on earlier work that he published in 2011 in Cognition, “‘I had so much it didn’t seem fair’: Eight-year-olds reject two forms of inequity.”

For the PLOS One paper, 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. That’s a 5-year-old’s gold.

Researchers knew there would be a judgment-behavior gap for the younger set of children—meaning that they 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.

Boston University BU, Peter Blake professor psychology, College of Arts and Sciences CAS, child psychology and sharing, inequity game

Blake and his colleagues created the Inequity Game, shown here, to measure kids’ reactions to equal and unequal distribution of candy. Photo by Peter Blake

For his Cognition paper, Blake and his coauthors examined the idea of fairness through a mobile experiment they called the Inequity Game. The set-up was Erector Set meets Candy Land. Two children sit at a plywood platform; one is the player, the other the receiver. The player is placed in front of two levers—one green, the other red—that control two scales balanced in the middle of the board above three bowls. Pull on the green lever, and candy placed atop the scales dumps into each of the kids’ bowls. Pull on the red lever, and the candy drops into a central bowl that no one could get.

Blake and his colleagues took the game to several Boston parks and recruited more than 200 4- to 8-year-olds to play. The children were roughly paired by age, didn’t know each other, and were taken through two sets of six trials. In one set, each child would receive one Skittle, and in the second set, each would receive an unequal number at a 4 to 1 ratio. The players had to decide to accept the deal (green handle) or reject it (red handle), and researchers recorded their actions and reaction times.

“We expected them to accept all of the equal ones,” Blake says, “but the real test case is the unequal ones.”

Almost all the children immediately accepted an equal split of Skittles. (Blake says some rejected it because “they didn’t like that color.”) The 4- to 7-year-old players would reject an unequal split when it wasn’t in their favor (1 to 4), but happily accepted it when it was (4 to 1). And the 8-year-olds played Switzerland, rejecting offers that were inequitable for either themselves or others.

“They showed a strong sense that inequity is wrong, or at least that they were willing to make a sacrifice to prevent it, even when they’re getting more,” Blake says. He also noted that “kids started taking longer when they were faced with the large reward at 8, but not younger.”

Blake thought he’d identified a real biological shift—that by age 8, humans came to understand that equitable sharing is good for everyone. But as he and his colleagues fudged with the experiment, their results varied. They had players sit at the receiving side before the game began and saw that kids as young as 6 suddenly rejected advantageous offers.

“Perspective taking is one thing that can help kids understand what it looks like from the other side,” Blake says. “If it really were biological, it should be consistent no matter what we do to push on it. … We also shouldn’t see a change when we go across cultures.”

But they did. Collaborators in India, Peru, Uganda, and Senegal have had children play the Inequity Game and, consistently, the kids reacted at an older age than those tested in the United States. Blake says this may indicate cultural differences in how people address situations involving competition and generosity.

“When I have one and you have four, it costs me to reject that,” Blake explains, “but I’m basically saying, ‘I don’t want you to get more than me.’ That’s a competitive move. In the United States, kids may be more attuned to that.” But, he says, that doesn’t explain why kids reject an advantageous offer, something he hopes to study further.

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 two games indicate that children’s “self-interested bias diminishes over time” and may have something to do with “becoming a responsible individual in the culture,” at least in the United States. He now wants to explore whether receiving a gift makes children more likely to return the favor—testing the whole pay-it-forward mentality.

So what’s the take-away for parents?

“Stay tuned as we try to figure out what people can do to make kids more generous,” Blake says.

Meanwhile, be patient with play dates. Or start them once kids turn 8.

Parents interested in enrolling their children in a Social Development & Learning Lab study can visit this site.

Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Follow Leslie Friday on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

7 Comments on “I Should but I Won’t”

  • Can you indoctrination plan 101? on 06.28.2013 at 5:53 am

    According to conventional liberal dogma adult republicans are irresponsible individualists who do not grasp the concept of sharing. So per this same dogma it appears that something might be happening happens to the republican mindset between the ages of 8 and 18 years old to turn it into a selfish cultural monster. This research could therefore lead to the development of an indoctrination program run by the federal department of education and funded with tax payer dollars to make sure everyone grows up to be a caring sharing communist! Keep up the good work!

    • Sigh on 06.28.2013 at 10:25 am

      My head nearly exploded reading this. If there’s one thing that doesn’t need sharing, it’s this kind of lunacy.

      • M.Z. on 06.28.2013 at 1:33 pm

        It’s great that kids are open to the realities of wealth disparity from an early age, but without also being taught the difference between INVESTING and CONSUMING, the long-term effects of wealth redistribution on that class wealth disparity (just look at the gap since 2008… this isn’t what we wanted), this isn’t going to lead to improvement.

        As we learned with the Lehman collapse and knowing what we do about Fannie and Freddie (which have grown even bigger and are underwriting even more MBS’s as the housing bubble is reinflated), there is no way to hide costs. People are more likely to spend the money they earned through their own time and labor than people who got it through the redistributive mechanism.

        This nearly universal lack of education is one reason why the U.S. and the more profligate members of the EU are in the financial straits they are currently in. And it’s ultimately hurting the bottom percent earners in the country.

        • M.Z. on 06.28.2013 at 1:37 pm

          spend the money they earned *more wisely*

  • Can you indoctrination plan 101? on 07.01.2013 at 5:47 am

    Apparently the ironic fact that businesses profit more by paying their employees enough for them to buy the products the businesses produce is lost on those who hate capitalism. That profit can actually motivate one to share is thus lost on those who espouse the virtues of wealth redistribution. These utopian day dreamers fail to understand that a rising tide inherently floats all boats. Sadly with so many people now collecting a government check and refusing to do jobs that must instead be done be illegal immigrants………because this new breed of “AmeriKans” are too good to do that kind of work……….it will not take too much longer before the real benefits of wealth redistribution are felt by all of us but I digress.

    • MoonBatman on 07.02.2013 at 1:58 am

      You can’t digress when you never ‘gressed’. Guess you social Darwinists better just ‘di’ first.

      • Can you indoctrination plan 101? on 07.03.2013 at 7:15 am

        My digression may not have been sufficient for you but your play on words implying that I should “di” suggests you may be suffering from cognitive dissonance. Good luck with that.

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