How Social Relationships Shape Children’s Attitudes Towards Unfairness

HURNAN VONGSACHANG ’13

Figure 1
Figure 1: Mean equitable (1-1; actor 1, recipient 1) and advantageous inequity (AI) rejections (4-1; actor 4, recipient 1) for all children. Average total trials rejected (out of 8) for each trial type and age group; error bars are standard error of the mean.

My results demonstrated that there was no significant difference in the rejection behaviors of stranger and familiar children.

Previous research has shown that human adults and children (as well as several non-human species) are willing to suffer a cost in order to prevent another social partner from receiving a greater reward. This behavior is known as disadvantageous inequity aversion. Research has also shown that children are also willing to incur a cost in order to prevent themselves from receiving more than a social partner (advantageous inequity aversion). However, these studies are limited in that subject participants are usually unfamiliar with one another. Therefore, in order to investigate the effect of the social relationship between two parties on inequity aversion, I conducted a study testing unfamiliar and familiar pairs of children from ages four to twelve in the Boston and Cambridge areas. The study protocol was adapted from Blake and McAuliffe’s 2011 inequity aversion game, in which two children sat face-to-face as an experimenter distributed candy between them. One child was assigned the actor’s role and decided whether to accept or reject the distributions allocated, while the other child sat passively throughout the game.

My results demonstrated that there was no significant difference in the rejection behaviors of stranger and familiar children. Children aged four to nine, regardless of their relationship with the recipient, rejected disadvantageous distributions but not advantageous distributions. However, stranger and familiar ten- to twelve-year-olds rejected both disadvantageous and advantageous offers. Although these results showed that familiarity with the recipient does not affect children’s inequity aversion tendencies, they reinforce the idea that disadvantageous inequity aversion and advantageous inequity aversion are based on distinct cognitive mechanisms.

These findings can be generalized and understood in an evolutionary framework. Because disadvantageous inequity aversion manifests itself in both younger and older children, it follows that disadvantageous inequity aversion has evolved to prioritize personal fitness and to avoid defectors. However, since advantageous inequity aversion emerges later in childhood development, it can be suggested that advantageous inequity aversion is acquired later in ontogeny through social learning to facilitate cooperative interactions with general members of society.

Figure 2: Mean equitable (1-1; actor 1, recipient 1) and disadvantageous inequity (DI) rejections (1-4; actor 1, recipient 4) for all children. Average total trials rejected (out of 8) for each trial type and age group; error bars are standard error of the mean.
Figure 2: Mean equitable (1-1; actor 1, recipient 1) and disadvantageous inequity (DI) rejections (1-4; actor 1, recipient 4) for all children. Average total trials rejected (out of 8) for each trial type and age group; error bars are standard error of the mean.

The writer can be reached at hurnan.vongsachang@gmail.com.