Being Human 2012

The Science of Human Experience

Palace of Fine Arts / San Francisco, CA March 24, 2012 9am - 5:30pm

Babies Understand the Concept of Fairness

Posted on Thursday, February 23, 2012 at 1:31PM

Life may not be fair, but that doesn't keep even the youngest of us from recognizing when others aren't playing by the rules. Researchers have found that even 19-month-old infants understand and expect fairness, offering evidence that concepts like sharing and behaving kindly may be ingrained.

The researchers first had 19-month-old babies watch a puppet show in which the puppets either received toys fairly (one toy for each) or unfairly (both toys to one). They timed how long the children watched the scene, with longer looking times indicating that something was unexpected to the baby. Three-quarters of the children looked longer when one puppet got both toys, indicating that they saw this unequal distribution as off.

They then had 21-month-old babies watch as two actors faced each other in a messy room scenario. A third person said, "Wow! Look at all these toys. It's time to clean them up." In the first scenario, one actor cleaned up while the other did not; in the second, both actors cleaned up. At the end, the actors were both given rewards, regardless of whether only one had cleaned or both had cleaned. The observing infants looked longer when both the worker and the slacker were rewarded equally, despite both not having performed the chore.

"We think children are born with a skeleton of general expectations about fairness," explains experimenter Stephanie Sloane from the University of Illinois, "and these principles and concepts get shaped in different ways depending on the culture and the environment they're brought up in." Some cultures value sharing more than others, but the ideas that resources should be equally distributed and rewards allocated according to effort are innate and universal.

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