024: How (and when) does my child understand fairness?

We talked a while ago about sharing, and how you can understand the developmental processes that your child needs to go through before s/he truly understands what it means to share.

One of the inputs to sharing behavior is an understanding of what is fair, and Drs. Peter Blake and Katie McAuliffe talk us through what we know about what children understand about fairness.  This episode will help you to understand how much of the idea of fairness is naturally culturally transmitted to children and what you can do to encourage a sense of fairness in your child, which is important for their own social well-being and for the benefit of our society – this has implications for ideas like the development of perceptions about race and gender that we’ll be talking more about in upcoming episodes.


Blake, P.R., Corbit, J., Callaghan, T.C., & Warneken, F. (2016). Give as I give: Adult influence on children’s giving in two cultures. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 152, 149-160. DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2016.07.010

Blake, P.R., McAuliffe, K., Corbit, J., Callaghan, T.C., Barry, O, Bowie, A., Kleutsch, L., Kramer, K.L., Ross, E., Vongsachang, H., Wrangham, R., & Warneken, F. (2015). The ontogeny of fairness in seven societies. Nature 528, 258-261. DOI:10.1038/nature15703

Blake, P.R., Rand, D.G., Tingley, D., & Warneken, F. (2015). The shadow of the future promotes cooperation in a repeated prisoner’s dilemma for children. Scientific Reports 5, Article number 14559. DOI: 10.1038/srep14559

Blake, P.R., & McAuliffe, K. (2011). “I had so much it didn’t seem fair”: Eight-year-olds reject two forms of inequity. Cognition 120, 215-224. DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.04.006

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Chernyak, N., & Kushnir, T. (2013). Giving preschoolers choice increases sharing behavior. Psychological Science 24, 1971-1979.

Jordan, J.J., McAuliffe, K., & Warneken, F. (2014). Development of in-group favoritism in children’s third-party punishment of selfishness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 111(35), 12710-12715. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1402280111

McAuliffe, K., Blake, P.R., Steinbeis, N., & Warneken, F. (2017). The developmental foundations of human fairness.  Nature (Human Behavior) 1 (Article 00042), 1-9.

McAuliffe, K., Jordan, J.J., & Warneken, F. (2015). Costly third-party punishment in young children. Cognition 134, 1-10. DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2014.08.013

Schmuckler, M.A. (2001). What is ecological validity? A dimensional analysis. Infancy 2(4), 419-436. Full article available at: http://utsc.utoronto.ca/~marksch/Schmuckler%202001.pdf


Read Full Transcript


Jen:                                      [00:30]                   Hello and welcome to today’s episode of Your Parenting Mojo, which is called What Do Children Understand About Fairness? And I have two very special guests with me to discuss this topic. Dr Peter Blake earned has doctorate in education at Harvard University and is currently an Assistant Professor at Boston University’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. His research focuses on three important foundations of human life, cooperation, fairness and ownership, and so he asks questions in his research like when should you share and when should you compete for resources? Is equal always fair or can you sometimes keep more for yourself? And how do you know when a toy is owned and what does that mean? Right now he’s working on extending projects, the different cultures, so we can better understand whether children in all cultures develop in similar ways at similar times and what cultural variables influence that development. Welcome Dr Blake.

Dr. Blake:                           [01:21]                   Thank you.

Jen:                                      [01:22]                   And Dr. Katie McAuliffe is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Boston College, which I just learned as different from Boston University. She two studies, the development and evolution of cooperation in humans with a special focus on how children acquire and enforced fairness norms. She’s made the rounds of Harvard, Yale, and Cambridge, and her educational career. I think the only one she’s missing is Oxford. Welcome Dr McAuliffe.

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [01:44]                   Hi; nice to be here. Thanks.

Jen:                                      [01:45]                   Thank you so much for being here. So let’s start with a question that seems really simple, but I’m guessing there’s probably more to it than, than maybe I might imagine. Can you tell us what fairness is?

Dr. Blake:                           [01:56]                   Yeah, that’s, that’s the big question and it is a very complicated answer. So fairness is a, is a very complex concept, particularly for adults and we know that equal is not always fair, but equality does provide a kind of starting point for us to understand how children figure out what is fair and what is not. So we tend to focus our research in a couple of ways. One way is that we focus on the allocation of resources which has also been called distributive justice, how you distribute resources between people. So we focus on that aspect of fairness as opposed to social status and things like that. And we also focus around this idea of equality and particularly what happens. How did children respond when they get less and get more than other kids.

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [02:51]                   And I think studying how fairness develops in childhood is a nice way of showing how flexible the concept is. Because when we look at how children begin to think about fairness, you can see that what it means to be fair really varies depending on whether you’re a two year old or an eight year old.

Jen:                                      [03:08]                   How does that change?

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [03:09]                   Well, we can kind of get into that with lots of different studies, but maybe a sort of broad way to characterize the change, and this is based on work that was really done in the seventies is that fairness tends to start out as being quite self focused. So I want to make sure that I’m getting a good deal, and it goes through a period of sort of really caring about equality as Peter said, as a sort of benchmark of justice and then it becomes much more nuanced or you can take different perspectives into account and understand that sometimes someone is more deserving or more needy and therefore inequality is acceptable under certain situations.

Jen:                                      [03:46]                   Most of the parents listening to this show are parents of toddlers and, and some parents of preschoolers. And I know that you start to study children kind of around about age four or five years. Why don’t you study children younger than that? What is it that makes that difficult?

Dr. Blake:                           [04:01]                   It’s primarily that there’s very different methods that are used for, for infants and toddlers, largely because they don’t have the verbal skills yet to do some of the tasks. We have tried to test children as young as three in some of our experiments. That works fine, but younger than that, we’ve found that they don’t do well on our tasks, but other people do research…have done research on infants. And one key thing that they found going back to this idea of equality is that even at about 15 months of age, infants expect resources to be distributed equally between two people. And they expect adults to divide things like food and toys equally. They’re surprised when this doesn’t happen. And this has been shown in several different infant studies now. So that goes back to this idea of equality is a kind of foundation now where that comes from. This could have been learned through experience 15 months of age is still quite a long time of life, but they’re learning just by observing this, this isn’t based on their own behavior. So they’re not constructing this idea of equality from their own experience.

Jen:                                      [05:13]                   So are you saying that if I always make sure that I get a bigger piece of chocolate cake than my husband does, that my daughter might not understand fairness to mean equal?

Dr. Blake:                           [05:22]                   I wouldn’t go that far. But by the time we get up to about three years of age you can ask it explicitly what they think is fair. And one of the things that we’ve found in some of our studies is that when we give children a set of stickers, for example, and we asked them, how should you divide this up with another child? They’ll say, yeah, I should give half. But then when we give them a chance to actually give to the other child, they’ll keep more for themselves. So they, they recognize that there’s this norm of an equal split in that context, but they don’t follow it; they tend to favor themselves. And this is, uh, this idea of a bias to favor oneself is something we see in other variations of studies, including the big ones that Katie and I have worked on together.

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [06:10]                   And I think Peter is pointing to a really important distinction in the types of studies that are done looking at fairness sort of this children’s expectations of what ought to be done versus what they actually do. And so most of our work really focuses on children’s behavior, so we put them into these games inspired by behavioral economics where they’re making decisions that affect both their own payouts as well as a partners payout. And I think this is part of the reason why we tend to start around for those contingencies and the payoffs and the structures of the games are just hard to understand for children younger than than that age.

Dr. Blake:                           [06:45]                   And when we say economics to kids, we use candy and stickers as our currency.

Jen:                                      [06:53]                   Both things that are very attractive to kids. And so I’ve seen a bunch of, you know, I’ve read a lot of your papers and I’ve seen a bunch of diagrams of how you do these experiments. Can you just maybe talk us through one of these experiments and how you actually test this kind of thing?

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [07:08]                   Yeah. So the one that Peter and I started back when we were Grad students at Harvard is called the inequity game and this game that we developed that we’ve subsequently used across a lot of different papers and the way this works is we go out to different public areas and we recruit two children, typically children that do not know one another to play a face to face game. And in this game, one child makes all the decisions so they have control of this apparatus and they are making decisions that affect both how many Skittles they get as well as how many Skittles their partner gets. So they’re called the actor. They’re the one who’s making the decisions that we care about. Then the other participant is assigned the role of recipient. They’re sort of passive in this game. They just get whatever they get based on the actor’s decisions.

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [07:52]                   Uh, and then from there the structure is really very simple. So an experimenter, we’ll put different amounts of candies on two trays, one for the actor, one for the recipient. And essentially the actor just decides, do I want to accept that allocation or do I want to reject it? And now if they accept it, they’ll get some candy and the recipient will get some candy. But if they reject it, and this is the interesting part, the candy gets put into a middle bowl and nobody gets to take those candies home. So it’s an all or nothing game. And we use this game to, to kind of understand what distributions children will accept and which ones they’ll reject. And sort of the simplest distinction is one where they’re either getting an equal pay off. So the actor is getting one candy and their partner is getting one candy.

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [08:35]                   And as you might imagine, children tend to be very happy to accept those allocations, but then we can put them in a situation where they’re getting less than their partner. So let’s say they’re getting one candy and their partner is getting four. So this is an interesting dilemma because now you know, presumably the actor wants that one Skittle, but you know, they don’t really want the partner to get more than them. So they have to decide, am I okay accepting one thing and letting my partner have more than me or would I rather we both get nothing. And what we find is that even children at the bottom end of our age range, so four year olds will reject those allocations.

Jen:                                      [09:09]                   Really?

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [09:10]                   Yeah. That means effectively they’re paying the price of one Skittle to prevent their partner from getting more than them. So that’s what you might’ve seen in our papers as that’s labeled disadvantageous inequity aversion. So it’s an aversion to pay off where I’m getting less than someone else. And then we can also in using this exact same game, look at the reverse form of this allocation. So one where the actor gets for candies and their partner gets one. So now you know, they get this amazing payoff. Their partner is getting less and now they face this sort of different dilemma, which is now I really want these four candies, but maybe I know it’s unfair to my partner. So should I accept them and let them get less than me or should I reject it and make, make us both get nothing? And they’re, what you might expect having interacted with children, is that young children are totally fine with those outcomes.

Jen:                                      [10:00]                   Did they ever take the four Skittles and then away from the game, give one to the other kid?

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [10:05]                   So that kind of behavior actually doesn’t happen spontaneously, but part of that might be that these children don’t know one another, like those things that would happen more organically in the relationship that’s established, just don’t happen that much in this. And we also tried to discourage talking and things like that to the best of our ability. But the interesting thing about this form of reaction is that children by about eight or nine, at least in America or the U.S. populations that we studied and tend to reject those. So here is a case where they’re sacrificing for candies to prevent a partner from getting less than them, which is really costly adherence to a norm of equality.

Jen:                                      [10:46]                   Yeah, for sure. So you alluded to a question that I had in my mind about, you know, you do these experiments and you find children that don’t know each other and get them to divide candies across them. But most of the time if I have to share something, it’s probably with somebody that I know, you know, it’s not like I get one shot to take candy from you and then I never have to see you again. So how do we mesh the economic models that talk about how I’m supposed to try and get as much as I can for myself or the fairness models that say an equal split is the best thing with the idea that, you know, I have to see you again tomorrow. Well I don’t have to see YOU again tomorrow but I have to see my daughter again tomorrow and if I give her the short end of the stick, then she, she might end up remembering that.

Dr. Blake:                           [11:28]                   That’s a really good point. And in several kinds of games, including these more straightforward giving tasks where you have a set of resources and you can share with a strange kid or with somebody who’s a friend, kids will give more to the friend, of course. In our particular the inequity game type design…when we started out we wanted to try to rule out the possibility that kids were coming in to the game with a history and might have future interactions with this partner that allowed us to focus just on the cognitive mechanism here, which is how are you responding to the inequality? But in followup studies when we did our, we did a large cross cultural study testing in seven different societies including the U.S. And when we did this again in the U.S. We tested about 200 pairs of kids and half of them were friends and the other half were not. And we saw no differences there.

Jen:                                      [12:31]                   Really?

Dr. Blake:                           [12:31]                   Yes, it was surprising to us, too. We thought we would see differences, but that doesn’t mean that it, it can’t explain some of the variation that we saw in some of the other societies. So for example, in Mexico, we tested a group of indigenous peoples there called the Maya in the Yucatan peninsula and in those villages the villages are very small and all the kids know each other, so there was no way to get kids who didn’t know each other to play the game. And in this particular place we saw that the kids were much more likely to accept having a disadvantage. So it took them until about nine years of age, much later than we see in the U.S. And at much lower levels. So kids in Mexico or rejecting his bad deal offer a much less often than in the U.S.. And that could be explained by the relationship between the kids in that particular community as compared to some of the other places we were at.

Jen:                                      [13:38]                   Are you referring to the study that you that you published in Nature? Is that the big ones? Yeah, because you looked at a bunch of different cultures, didn’t you? Were there other findings that were really interesting coming from some of the other cultures that you looked at?

Dr. Blake:                           [13:49]                   Yeah, Katie.

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [13:49]                   Yeah. So we tested children in seven different countries, so we tested children in the USA and Canada and then those two western cultures and then this group in Mexico that Peter mentioned and then India, Peru, Uganda and Senegal. And I can kind of summarize the two main findings are the main finding that we saw disadvantageous inequity version, so this, this thing that I described earlier where children are willing to pay the price of one skittle to prevent their partner from getting four. We saw that everywhere and there’s, Peter already mentioned that we didn’t see it at exactly the same time and it exactly the same rate everywhere, but the main finding there is that there was fairly low cross cultural variation and that it seemed to be everywhere. So that sort of a candidate for something that we might consider to be a universal human behavior.

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [14:46]                   And our claim is that this is probably a very foundational response. This response to getting less than someone else. We see it in young kids and we see it in all the places that we’ve tested so far. But that other form of response to unfairness is advantageous and equity version where you have to give up a lot to prevent someone from getting less than you that we only saw in three places. So the USA, which we expected based on our previous findings, Canada, uh, which is not so dissimilar from the USA in many respects. And I say that as a Canadian

Jen:                                      [15:18]                   In some respects. Yes. And others… As an English person…

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [15:24]                   And then the sort of surprising finding to us was that we also saw advantageous inequity version in Uganda. And so there are many explanations for that, but the two kind of primary ones are… Well, the one thing is it could be that sort of norms of equality are really emphasized there as they are in the States. And so that’s why children in as they entered late childhood are starting to incur this cost to enforce fairness. So it’s possible that there’s sort of just a convergence of this behavior that we’re seeing across these societies. But another possibility, which is I think we have to consider quite seriously is that this place where we are testing in Uganda is influenced by Western teachers. So they come and they, it’s a school where Westerners will come and help with curriculum development and at the time that we were running, this was apparently a time that had been preceded by a lot of conflict between schools.

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [16:20]                   So they’re very competitive and debating and spelling bees and uh, so apparently in response to some of this extreme competition, teachers had been really emphasizing norms of fairness and emphasizing kindness and generosity. And in fact I just went back last summer to the same school to do testing for another study. And I noticed all of these posters around that are exactly the types of posters that you’d see in a primary school here, which say like, fairness, you know, treat everyone equally, kindness, think of others before yourself. So it’s possible that what we were seeing was really sort of the Western norm that had been introduced in some respects by these Western teachers.

Jen:                                      [17:00]                   Hm. Fascinating. So it, it seems as though this is very much linked to the idea of a sharing and how you go about socializing that process and I come from a parenting philosophy that says that sharing will come with time as the child understands it in their own mind and that telling the child to share something doesn’t necessarily help a very young child, younger than in your study, because they don’t have the cognitive ability to understand that properly yet. Is that, does that have basis in, in science?

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [17:37]                   I mean, I think what Peter mentioned earlier sort of aligns with that, but even if they do understand it, they might just ignore it. So they might say like, I know that you’re telling me to be fair. I know that I should be fair, but I’m not going to be fair. So. But I think it is really interesting to both of us right now is understanding the processes that lead to an alignment between knowing what I should be doing and actually doing what I should do.

Jen:                                      [17:58]                   Yeah. So, so how does that process happen? How, how did the kids resolve those conflicts were where they know they’re supposed to be fair, but they just don’t want to yet. And, and how does that progress into, I know I’m supposed to be fair and I’m going to be fair.

Dr. Blake:                           [18:12]                   So I have a line of research that where we started to investigate this question and we were particularly interested in how parents might influence children’s sharing and generosity behavior. So we went to, we tested in the U.S. again and then we went to the same rural villages in India that we have tested for this other project. We’ve gone back there several times now and we ask the parents to demonstrate a generous donation. So we asked the parents secretly so that the kids didn’t know this and the parents were asked either to give nine out of 10 items to another person or just give one out of 10. So we had a generous and a stingy condition and we had kids also do a control condition where we just saw what they did on their own without seeing the parent do anything. And the question was whether kids would spontaneously imitate the parents and what we found was a real striking difference between the two cultures. So in the U.S., kids would give a bit more after they saw the parents be generous. So the parents giving 90 percent away, kids would not get anywhere near that. They would, they would give up to about 50 percent. And then they would…it’s as if they were saying, yeah, I think that’s enough. It seemed like they were using the norm of equality as in a strategic way. And then in India what we found is that the kids were far more likely to be, generous, almost as generous as the parents and a big chunk of the kids gave 90 percent away as well after seeing the parent. So this is, this was a first study and we’re trying to go back to do some more tests, but our working hypothesis right now is that this, this could have to do with the different values that are emphasized in these two places. So in the U.S., parents are encouraging their kids to be independent and think for themselves. And one consequence of that might be that the kids are actually doing that when it comes to this behavior.

Jen:                                      [20:25]                   Darn it!

Dr. Blake:                           [20:29]                   So do you want your child to follow your lead and being generous? It might, it could backfire, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. They’re learning something else, right? They’re learning how to be independent. And then in India we believe that based on some anthropology biological work there that the values of elders are, are emphasized to a larger degree. So we need to test this. But that’s our working hypothesis right now.

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [20:58]                   I have data that are related to that because we also did a sharing game this time in the U.S. where we gave children explicit norms about what they should be doing. So we said, and we gave them either a selfish, normal or agenda is not very similar to what Peter described. And we also saw this effect that the, the older children, when they were told to give eight out of 10, were sort of bound by quality. You couldn’t, you couldn’t push them past the quality. But then we also found that they were not as susceptible to the selfish norm as the younger children. So if we said give two the eight year olds wouldn’t really give two, it’s like they kind of knew that that was wrong. Whereas the four and five they were like, oh, sweet, I can give two? Amazing. And they sort of, it sort of seemed like they were using that as a licensing and licensing effect where they were like, well, I know I shouldn’t give two, but if you tell me it’s okay to give two. I’m going to give to him.

Jen:                                      [21:51] Shifting gears a little bit. We talked a little bit about the development of racism on the podcast and how that, uh, that whole thing happens. And I had always assumed that if you just don’t talk about race to your child that your child won’t be racist. And then I did the research and found out that it was totally wrong. So if any listeners missed that episode, you might want to go out and check that out because there’s a lot of interesting stuff in there. Um, but I know that Katie, you did some research on how children perceive fairness related to in-groups and out-groups. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [22:23]                   Yeah, I’d love to talk about that because that’s really a very active one of my lab at the moment. If I can just ask a quick question, did you interview anyone for that?

Jen:                                      [22:31]                   I did not, no. If you have suggestions…

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [22:34]                   One person who’s a good friend of both of ours is Yarrow Dunham at Yale; he’s done a lot of work on the development of both implicit and explicit attitudes about race and about other types of social category. So He’d be a good one. And actually the work that I’ve done… Most of the work that I’ve done on the intergroup work is with Yarrow. Yeah. So one thing to say about the general approach to studying this question that it will at least how I’ve done it with children, is not to look at real social categories like gender or race or age, but rather to assign children to minimal groups. So this means that they come into the lab and we tell them either you’re on the blue team or you’re on the yellow team, and this really induces in-group bias in children like suddenly, you know, even if they know they’re randomly assigned to a group, suddenly they really care about the fact that they’re on this blue team which is nice because you can then study the effects of in group favoritism without the baggage that comes with known social categories. So it’s a really nice method for doing that. And um, I’ve used that method across a couple of different games. The one that you might have read is the, the third party punishment game. So this is one where the child comes in and is learning about someone who has been unfair to someone else and then they are given an opportunity to punish them for their unfair behavior or to kind of stand by and let it happen. And what we found in this study, and this was spearheaded by Gillian Jordan, who is a thesis student at Harvard at the time. What she did, she found was that children tend to be especially forgiving of in-group members who have been unfair, which means they’ve been there, especially punitive, have out-group members who have been unfair. So if you’re an out group member and you’ve been selfish, so you’ve kept all suites for yourself, you haven’t shared any, I’m very likely to punish you for that. But if you’re in my group and you’ve done exactly the same thing, I’m a little less likely to punish you for that. Which suggests that children’s sort of tendency to intervene in this kind of context is pulled by this competing motive of in-group favoritism.

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [24:39]                   So I’ve then done two studies, one in collaboration with Peter, looking at children in two different contexts. So one in the ultimatum game, which is where someone has been directly unfair to the target. So here a child learns that someone has offered them a really unfair split of resources and they learned that this person was either in their in-group or in their out-group. And the question is will they be really annoyed if the out-group member offered them unfairness? But maybe more forgiving if an in-group member was unfair or potentially the opposite. And what we found there, and this is a paper actually that will be coming out soon in a journal called Journal of Experimental Psychology General there we found that sort of fairness trumps group bias. So when you’re in a situation where you’re directly involved in the unfair interaction and you’ve just been treated unfairly, you know, that’s what really motivates you to respond, and that sort of overrides any existing group bias that you, you might feel. And then we found a similar thing in the inequity game. So what I’m starting to see in the work that I’ve done on this is that there’s a big difference between stepping back and watching unfairness happen between others versus being directly involved in the unfairness interaction yourself. And it seems like when you’re in that position where you’re watching and you’re, you’re removed from the situation, that’s where in-group bias matters. But when you’re right in the thick of it, in group bias doesn’t matter as much.

Jen:                                      [26:02]                   Yeah. That I’m actually thinking of a viral video that’s going around at the moment of a woman, I don’t remember where she was, but she’s in a store and there are two Hispanic ladies and it looks like one of them cut in front of her in line and she just, lets go with this tirade and all the people in the line behind her just don’t say anything and I’m wondering if there’s something there, because because the two women at the front are both Hispanic and they’re a different race than all the other people in the group, you know? Is it because of the thing that you mentioned where you know it’s. Well they’re not, they’re not my group and I’m not gonna say anything. Is that the same idea?

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [26:43]                   Yeah. So most theories, sort of higher level theories about why we see this interface between group bias and cooperation are exactly that, that these norms should apply to your group and should not necessarily transfer across group boundaries. So norms ought to be enforced particularly strongly within the group. And that theory really makes sense for the reasons that I think are sort of intuitive. What’s interesting is that when you look at the data from adults and children, we actually don’t see that so much like it. Our third party punishment study is one nice example where you actually see more punishment of out-group members than in-group. So in kind of going back to your analogy there, you would have expected someone that was in the out-group in a line to intervene and punish these other two women. So I think like the intuition is that it should be in one direction, but at the moment that the data aren’t really lining up with them.

Jen:                                      [27:37]                   Yeah. So I’m wondering what can parents do, if anything to…maybe not override is the right word, but you know, so sort of blur those boundaries between in-groups and out-groups a little bit. Is, is that, is that a valid thing to even try and do?

Dr. Blake:                           [27:53]                   Well, Katie has an advantage here because she has a child.

Jen:                                      [27:57]                   Do you do experiments on your own child?

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [28:04]                   I think, well, first of all I should say that there are lots of people who could answer this question and a much more educated way than I could or that either of us could. I think that there’s some data to suggest that with real social categories, exposure helps, but I’m not sure the extent to which that the data are really persuasive. I mean just directly inferring from what I’ve just told you about in terms of how group bias can be eroded in terms of fairness interactions. One conclusion could be that if you encourage children to really take the perspectives of others and put themselves in the shoes of those who are being treated unfairly, then maybe sort of fairness would trump in-group bias in even in this situation where they’re divorced from what’s actually happening. But that’s as far as I’m willing to go with that.

Dr. Blake:                           [28:50]                   I’ll put out another strategy, which I don’t know if I’m looking at Katie to see if she can back this up, but I’ve heard you talk about this. Another strategy could be to a point out the groups that you’re both a member of. So to go back to those people in the line and say, hey, we’re all Red Sox fans were all women always. There’s always some other group you can appeal to, you know, so there’s multiple ways to mark the group. But I don’t know how kids, how that works with kids.

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [29:22]                   Yeah, me neither.

Jen:                                      [29:23]                   Yeah. Okay. Well thanks for going out on a limb on that. Um, so one thing that I did want to probe on a little bit is that so many of your studies or experimental in nature, which in some ways is awesome because you really get to understand a bit more about cause and effect that you do in other types of studies. But I, I’m sure you’re familiar with the late professor Uri Bronfenbrenner’s criticism about developmental psychology and I’m going to quote as being “the science of strange behavior of children in strange situations with strange adults for the briefest possible periods of time.” And I’m wondering if you can help us to understand how we can know that these kinds of experiments that you’re doing have what Dr Bronfenbrenner would call ecological validity. You know, do they, do they test what we think they’re testing?

Dr. Blake:                           [30:13]                   So Bronfenbrenner was very influential for critique of experimental studies, but he knew he wasn’t rejecting the expeirmental approach. Just to bring it up to a broader context is his bigger picture was that development occurs within a social context and there are multiple levels of those contexts and I think the cross cultural work that we’re doing and that other people have been working on is trying to get at those different levels to see like, well, where is the variation in children’s behavior? Uh, and it in answering one of his other criticisms we’re trying to get beyond testing kids who are just US citizens and then generalizing from there. So I think his main critique was that we’re overgeneralizing a lot from experiments. But to get to the point about ecological validity, one response to that is that our experiments have face validity. Face validity means that if you want to study the behavior, you actually create the context where the behavior occurs.

Dr. Blake:                           [31:22]                   So we give children candy and put them in a situation where they can share. So anything I give to you is costly to me, that is at face value, altruism, that’s by definition. So it is a costly and meaningful action and once we have those experimental paradigms set up, then we can very aspects of the context to figure out precisely… We can try to describe the cognitive processes that are at work there. So that’s one kind of answer, but when, when ecological validity comes up, I also like to point out that this exists on a wide spectrum and it goes all the way from an MRI machine which has zero ecological validity to anthropological observations. And we don’t want to reject any evidence out of hand, even know laying in an MRI machine is about as far away from the real world interactions as you can get.

Jen:                                      [32:20]                   And just so we’re clear, what you’re talking about is putting someone in a machine that scans their brain while you ask them to do a certain task. Right?

Dr. Blake:                           [32:26] Exactly. And yet we’ve learned a tremendous amount about [unintelligible]. I don’t think you’ll find anyone who says we shouldn’t take neuroscience seriously. So often say, well, this isn’t ecologically valid. You could respond to that by saying, well, do you reject neuroscience?

Jen:                                      [32:46]                   Is that your standard come-back?

Dr. Blake:                           [32:48]                   It depends who I’m talking to.

Jen:                                      [32:52]                   Okay. Yeah, point taken.

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [32:55]                   I think that there’s, there’s something else here that we would love to do. I mean, any experimentalists would love to have a sense of how these behaviors translate into real world interactions and in particular, I mean, one thing that would be fascinating is to follow the children that, you know, do our experiment at age four all the way through adolescence and adulthood and if we have any early predictors of social behavior later on and at the moment as this quotation said, these children, we see them for 10 minutes and then never again. That’s certainly true of the park. Now, lab studies are in a slightly better position in this regard because the same families do come to the lab regularly, so there is some hope there. But yeah, I mean I think doing any sort of longitudinal work for these sorts of questions would be really good.

Dr. Blake:                           [33:44]                   The problem is it’s very expensive. And ideally we would see that happen in multiple cultures. That’s kind of our orientation these days. Can we take this abroad.

Jen:                                      [33:57]                   Yep. Well, there’s your next project.

Dr. Blake:                           [33:59]                   Just a couple of million dollars.

Jen:                                      [34:03] Excellent. I’ll get right on that. So we usually wrap up our episodes by just thinking about what, if anything, parents can and even should do to help their children in the area that we’re talking about. And we’ve sort of, we’ve touched on this several times as we’ve moved through and I’m wondering if, if this is, I mean obviously parents are already influencing the ways their children think about fairness. Should they be doing it differently than maybe the common intuition is for how to teach fairness or should we be trying to instill more of a collectivist model in our children to encourage cooperation with others? What’s your general sense of, of what parents can and should do to instill a sense of fairness and their children.

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [34:51]                   I mean, yeah. This is a really interesting question and I think I agree broadly with something you said earlier, which is they probably don’t have to do a whole lot and still going to come online. In some regards, but I think it’s true certainly with things like advantageous inequity aversion, which we’ve talked about a bit that shows quite a bit of flexibility across cultures and even within cultures across different contexts. I think, you know, like helping children overcome those sorts of costs and understand that they need to be fair to someone else. I think their parents can influence them. And one thing Peter made a note and I’m going to steal this point because I think it’s a good one and I actually have some new data to suggest that this is true perspective taking really encouraging children to perspective take and thinking about what it’s like to be at the receiving end of an unfair deal.

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [35:41]                   So maybe you’ve got four candies but this means your partner has one candy, you know, how is that going to make them feel that that might be able to help in some respects. Another thing I think I have some data… We have a project on this is I’m really like reputational cues are important to children and so making them aware that they’re being watched now this is not something you want to do and sort of awkward way, but I think we have data from lots of studies, not our own, but other work as well, showing that children tend to sort of cheat less and be more generous and more generous, but at least more fair when they’re behaviors are going to be visible to others. So I think emphasizing the reputational benefits of being a fair person might also help.

Jen:                                      [36:24]                   So not necessarily, Mama’s watching you and you better be fair, but you know, the other kids around you are noticing what you’re doing and they might not want to play with you tomorrow if you take all the toys. And in terms of perspective taking, I’m just curious as to what age you can start to encourage that, do you think?

Dr. Blake:                           [36:43]                   In our particular tasks effective this, we think; we haven’t tested it explicitly but around six years of age. So remember, in the US, we typically find that kids will reject getting more and getting less. By around eight. When we did this new variation of the past where kids had to look at things from the other person’s side. We found that younger kids about age six would also start to reject both forms of inequality. That gave us a kind of hint like, oh, maybe it’s this, you know, actually forcing them to take the perspective of the other person is helping them see what it’s like from their side. So that’s, that’s one possibility. We know that kids can do perspective taking much younger than that. So it’s a question of why it only starts to link up and matter with fairness at a later age. And I’m sure other people will find it younger.

Jen:                                      [37:42]                   I’m thinking about theory of mind research that tends to come up around age four, I think, doesn’t it? Where you can start to understand that other people have a point of view different from you.

Dr. Blake:                           [37:52]                   And even that you can find evidence that children understand other people’s perspectives and beliefs at a younger age depending on the experimental design, so I think we have a long way to go to find out more. But, uh, I wouldn’t say that four is not too young.

Jen:                                      [38:13]                   Okay, great. Well, thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Blake:                           [38:16]                   I could, I could add one more thing in terms of… Based on some other work that not by Katie and myself but by some other people showing them when, when children are putting more of a condition where they are in control of the resources and get to decide how to allocate them, they can be more generous in some cases. We believe that this is activating more of a…this is more about an altruistic motivation as opposed to fairness. But it is a, there’s an interesting pattern of findings across several studies that showed us, uh, so one that’s been done by a woman who’s a postdoc working with me right now. Her name is Nadia Cherniak. She found that when she strongly encouraged kids to give one sticker away to I’m a doll that was sad, then subsequently gave them a chance to give to someone else, they were more generous in the second step of giving more to the other partner in that case then they kept for themselves. So this seems to contradict what we’ve found in our fairness studies. But as I said, my own view is that this is, this is actually a distinct psychological process is more about altruism that about fairness and Nadia probably disagrees, but…

Jen:                                      [39:35] Graduate students! So I know we’re almost at time here, but because you mentioned it, I wonder if you could just distinguish between altruism and fairness and, and know why, why there are different mechanisms going on there.

Dr. Blake:                           [39:49]                   Yeah. So this has been an ongoing discussion and people do disagree with us on this, but in this new paper that’s a theory paper that’s coming out, we tried to describe this in more detail, but in the main point is that in our inequity game, if children are rejecting candy where they’re giving up a piece for themselves, uh, in order to prevent the peer from getting more than them, they’re going against their self interest, but they’re also not being nice. They’re denying candy to the other kid. So this seems to capture something that’s very distinct. It’s very much not an altruistic act to reject those offers, but it is fair. So using this particular design and testing it in various ways, we’ve made this argument that there seemed to be different psychological processes that are at work and we can push them around at different ages and in different ways, uh, which provides more evidence that is a different psychology that you’re slipping into.

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [40:56]                   And just one other piece of evidence that I think lines up with the fact that altruism and fairness are probably dissociable is that we see evidence for… This is going to take us off on a little tangent, but we do see some evidence for altruism and animals were sort of incur a cost to confer a benefit to another individual, but we see very weak evidence for fairness compared to what we see in children.

Jen:                                      [41:23]                   Yeah. You’ve done a lot of animal work as well, haven’t you?

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [41:26]                   Right. Yeah. So I think that’s nice evidence as well.

Jen:                                      [41:29]                   So I’m just curious what, what do the people who disagree with you think they think is the same mechanism at work?

Dr. Blake:                           [41:36]                   Yes, there is a debate about whether there’s two separate mechanisms or whether there’s one overarching mechanism. One position, that’s come out recently is that these really are capturing the same thing and it’s really about minimizing inequality between groups. So when I give some, some of my pile of resources to you, I’m making it less equal and in a similar way when I reject the offers in our inequity game, I’m making things closer to equality. So that’s possible. I think experimentally we can show that they’re distinct, but we’re at the point of these positions are just being formulated now.

Jen:                                      [42:21] Cutting edge! Awesome. Well thank you so much for giving us a preview of that and thanks for taking the time to join us today.

Dr. McAuliffe:                   [42:26]                   No problem. It was fun.

Dr. Blake:                           [42:26]                   Thank you.

Jen:                                      [42:27]                   So as a reminder to listeners, all the references for today’s episode can be found on YourParentingMojo.com/Fairness And I also wanted to let you know that a hot off the press, Peter and Katie have a new article coming out. Can we, can we get a link to that article?

Dr. McAulilffe:                  [42:42]                   I can send it when it comes out.

Jen:                                      [42:45]                   Okay, awesome. Thank you. It’s going to be called The Developmental Foundations of Fairness and it’s going to be published in Nature and Human Behavior, which is quite an accomplishment, so congratulations on that and thanks again for joining us.

Dr. Blake:                           [42:57]                   Thank you.

Also published on Medium.


About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

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