Although we often find young children to be selfish, research has shown that babies and toddlers have surprisingly strong instincts for what is fair. As early as one year of age, children expect resources to be distributed fairly and that people are helpful to others. In pairs, they themselves tend to distribute resources evenly and prefer to play with a fair adult rather than an unfair one.
But when do young children actually intervene when they see that someone is behaving fairly or unfairly? According to a number of studies in UnderstandingEven before they are one and a half years old, children reward someone for fairness – although they do not yet punish unfair behavior.
The team, led by Talee Ziv from the University of Washington, first trained a group of 16-month-old children to use a touch screen to produce audio clips. Touching one side of the screen produced negative feedback (e.g., “She was bad”), while touching the other side produced positive feedback (e.g., “She was good”).
The children then watched four video clips, each showing a woman handing crackers or Lego blocks to two other people. In two of the clips the “distributor” shared resources fairly, in the other two she gave one person more than the other (in each of the four clips a different actor played the role of distributor). After watching these videos, the toddlers were shown the faces of the four mailing lists again, and after seeing each of them, they had 60 seconds to touch the screen as many times as they wanted.
The team found that when the children saw the trade show distribution lists, they touched the side of the screen that gave positive feedback significantly more often than the side that gave negative feedback. But when they saw the unfair dealers, there was no difference in the number of times they touched each side of the screen.
These results suggest that the children “reward” the fair actors with positive feedback. But it wasn’t clear if they really understood the idea that the audio clips would be worthwhile for the actor. To make sure the children understand that their actions are a clear reward or punishment, the researchers in a later study adapted the methods so that touching one side of the screen creates a video of someone giving the actor a cookie while touching the other side produces a video of someone taking away a biscuit.
Once again, the children rewarded the traders by clicking on the “Give cookie” page more often than on the “Take cookie” page. But they squeezed each side of the screen equally when the distributors acted unfairly.
Overall, the results suggest that toddlers reward those who behave fairly, which shows that very young children have a keen sense of what is “right” or normative. Interestingly, however, these children do not seem to punish those who were unfair (in fact, the researchers suspect that the children tended instead to avoid reacting to unfair traders, as overall they touched the screen less often after seeing those who traded unfair).
More research is needed to understand why toddlers don’t punish unfair actors. They may not see the actions as bad enough to warrant any type of punishment, the team suggests, or they might believe that punishment is only carried out by those in positions of authority. Or perhaps the concept of punishment develops later than that of reward. In either case, the team concluded, the results suggest that punishment isn’t just the downside of reward, but that they are both unique processes that can develop differently in children.
– Interventions by young children against fair and unfair people
Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is editor of BPS Biomedarticles