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November 19, 2015

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Children from different cultures may react differently to unfairness

Nov. 19, 2015
Courtesy of Harvard University
and World Science staff

Fair­ness is a key com­po­nent of hu­man civ­il­iz­a­tion, let­ting us share val­u­a­ble re­sources, but does it de­vel­op the same way, and at the same pa­ce, across all cul­tures?

May­be not, a study sug­gests.

Us­ing a game in which they dis­trib­ut­ed can­dy be­tween play­ers, re­search­ers found that chil­dren around the globe were quick to re­ject deals un­fair to them. But in only three coun­tries—the Un­ited States, Can­a­da, and Ugan­da—chil­dren al­so spurned deals un­fair to oth­ers.

“We had run stud­ies ex­plor­ing this idea—what we call in­equ­ity aver­sion—in the Bos­ton area,” said re­search­er Fe­lix Warneken of Har­vard Un­ivers­ity, sen­ior au­thor of the stu­dy, de­scribed in a Nov. 18 is­sue of the jour­nal Na­ture.

What the new study added, he said, was “look­ing at the cross-cul­tur­al spe­cif­i­city of it.” 

In each test, two chil­dren—one des­ig­nat­ed as the ac­tor and the oth­er the re­cip­i­en­t— seated on op­po­site sides a set­up made of two plat­forms and two han­dles. Ex­pe­ri­ment­ers put can­dy on the plat­forms in dif­fer­ent dis­tri­bu­tions, some fa­vor­ing the ac­tor and some fa­vor­ing the re­cip­i­ent.

“In some tri­als, the dis­tri­bu­tion was one piece of can­dy for the ac­tor and four for the re­cip­i­ent, and in oth­ers it was the oth­er way around,” War­ne­ken said. “If the ac­tor de­cides to ac­cept the dis­tri­bu­tion, they pull a green han­dle, the plat­forms tilt out and they get the can­dy. If they re­ject it, they pull a red han­dle, the plat­forms tilt in, the can­dy falls in­to a bowl and no­body gets any.”

In Bos­ton-area tests, re­search­ers had found chil­dren’s age in­flu­enced how they re­ac­tion to dif­fer­ent forms of in­equ­ity. Young chil­dren were quick to re­ject dis­tri­bu­tions—known as dis­ad­van­ta­geous in­equ­ity aver­sion—in which the oth­er per­son got more can­dy. By about eight years old, how­ev­er, chil­dren al­so be­gan to re­ject dis­tri­bu­tions that fa­vored them, called ad­van­ta­geous in­equ­ity aver­sion.

“That was a some­what sur­pris­ing find­ing,” said study co-au­thor Pe­ter Blake, now of Bos­ton Un­ivers­ity. “When we asked them why they did it, they said it was not fair.”

Spurred by those re­sults, Blake and col­la­bo­ra­tor Katie McAuliffe of Bos­ton Col­lege set out to ex­am­ine oth­er cul­tures—eventually run­ning tests in Can­a­da, In­dia, Mex­i­co, Pe­ru, Sen­e­gal, Ugan­da and the Un­ited States.

“Given that we see dis­ad­van­ta­geous in­equ­ity aver­sion so young in the U.S., we thought it was more likely we would see it in all cul­tures, and in­deed, that’s what we found,” McAuliffe said. “There was some varia­t­ion in the age when it emerged, but we saw it ev­ery­whe­re.”

Re­jec­tions of al­loca­t­ions that fa­vor the child, how­ev­er, were seen in only three coun­tries—the U.S., Can­a­da and Ugan­da. Ugan­da be­ing the only non-Western coun­try in the group, it may have been si­m­i­lar be­cause “chil­dren from the school in which we con­ducted our study in­ter­act with West­ern­ers on a fairly reg­u­lar ba­sis,” she said. 

The find­ings, the re­search­ers said, sug­gests that while dis­ad­van­ta­geous in­equ­ity aver­sion may be a hu­man uni­ver­sal, the op­po­site ap­pears to be more in­flu­enced by cul­tur­al norms.

“This is a nice first step, and a large one, to­ward mak­ing the case that dis­ad­van­ta­geous in­equ­ity aver­sion looks like a uni­ver­sal fea­ture,” Blake said. “But it’s im­por­tant to note that we were lim­it­ed in the cul­tures we tested. We did­n’t test hunter-gathe­rers, for ex­am­ple, so the­re’s al­ways a pos­si­bil­ity that we may not see this phe­nom­e­non in those cul­tures.”

Warneken, Blake and McAuliffe said the study lays a founda­t­ion for fu­ture work by let­ting re­search­ers tar­get spe­cif­ic coun­tries that may pro­duce in­ter­est­ing re­sults and to think deeply about how cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences may in­flu­ences the de­vel­opment of fair­ness be­hav­iors.

“We con­ducted this study on a shoe­string budg­et, which meant we worked with col­la­bo­ra­tors who al­ready had ac­cess to the sites,” Blake said. “Now that we have a pic­ture of what this looks like, and rec­og­nize that there are two dif­fer­ent pro­cesses at work he­re, we can be more tar­geted in which cul­tures we want to study in the fu­ture.”

One idea go­ing for­ward, War­ne­ken said, would be to start with cul­tures in which adults have shown large dif­fer­ences in in­equ­ity aver­sion, and in­ves­t­i­gate wheth­er those dif­fer­ences are al­so seen among chil­dren.

“We are not claim­ing that this ad­van­ta­geous in­equ­ity aver­sion does not ex­ist in these cul­tures, it’s only that we do not find it in child­hood and early ado­les­cence,” War­ne­ken said. “It could just be that this is some­thing kids in the U.S., Can­a­da and Ugan­da are pushed to­wards early on, and we can spec­u­late that in oth­er cul­tures this is some­thing that emerges lat­er, when they are adults and en­gage in more of these eco­nom­ic ex­changes.”


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Fairness is a key component of human civilization, letting us share valuable resources, but does it develop the same way, and at the same pace, across all cultures? Maybe not, a study suggests. Using a game in which they distributed candy between players, researchers found that children around the globe were quick to reject deals unfair to them. But in only three countries—the United States, Canada, and Uganda—children also spurned deals unfair to others. “We had run studies exploring this idea—what we call inequity aversion—in the Boston area,” said researcher Felix Warneken of Harvard University, senior author of the study, described in a Nov. 18 issue of the journal Nature. What the new study added, he said, was “looking at the cross-cultural specificity of it.” In each test, two children—one designated as the actor and the other the recipient—were seated on opposite sides a setup made of two platforms and two handles. Researchers placed candy on the platforms in different distributions, some favoring the actor and some favoring the recipient. “In some trials, the distribution was one piece of candy for the actor and four for the recipient, and in others it was the other way around,” Warneken said. “If the actor decides to accept the distribution, they pull a green handle, the platforms tilt out and they get the candy. If they reject it, they pull a red handle, the platforms tilt in, the candy falls into a bowl and nobody gets any.” In Boston-area tests, researchers had found children’s age influenced how they reaction to different forms of inequity. Young children were quick to reject distributions—known as disadvantageous inequity aversion—in which the other person got more candy. By about eight years old, however, children also began to reject distributions that favored them, called advantageous inequity aversion. “That was a somewhat surprising finding,” said study co-author Peter Blake, now of Boston University. “When we asked them why they did it, they said it was not fair.” Spurred by those results, Blake and collaborator Katie McAuliffe of Boston College set out to examine other cultures—eventually running tests in Canada, India, Mexico, Peru, Senegal, Uganda and the United States. “Given that we see disadvantageous inequity aversion so young in the U.S., we thought it was more likely we would see it in all cultures, and indeed, that’s what we found,” McAuliffe said. “There was some variation in the age when it emerged, but we saw it everywhere.” Rejections of allocations that favor the child, however, were seen in only three countries—the U.S., Canada and Uganda. Uganda being the only non-Western country in the group, it may have been similar because “children from the school in which we conducted our study interact with Westerners on a fairly regular basis,” she said. The findings, the researchers said, suggests that while disadvantageous inequity aversion may be a human universal, the opposite appears to be more influenced by cultural norms. “This is a nice first step, and a large one, toward making the case that disadvantageous inequity aversion looks like a universal feature,” Blake said. “But it’s important to note that we were limited in the cultures we tested. We didn’t test hunter-gatherers, for example, so there’s always a possibility that we may not see this phenomenon in those cultures.” Warneken, Blake and McAuliffe said the study lays a foundation for future work by letting researchers target specific countries that may produce interesting results and to think deeply about how cultural differences may influences the development of fairness behaviors. “We conducted this study on a shoestring budget, which meant we worked with collaborators who already had access to the sites,” Blake said. “Now that we have a picture of what this looks like, and recognize that there are two different processes at work here, we can be more targeted in which cultures we want to study in the future.” One idea going forward, Warneken said, would be to start with cultures in which adults have shown large differences in inequity aversion, and investigate whether those differences are also seen among children. “We are not claiming that this advantageous inequity aversion does not exist in these cultures, it’s only that we do not find it in childhood and early adolescence,” Warneken said. “It could just be that this is something kids in the U.S., Canada and Uganda are pushed towards early on, and we can speculate that in other cultures this is something that emerges later, when they are adults and engage in more of these economic exchanges.”