Children have sense of fairness by age of seven
By Roger Highfield, Science Editor
Last Updated: 6:01pm BST 27/08/2008
Children develop a sense of fairness by the age of seven,
according to a new study.
In research that should help to chart the origins of human social
life, morality and culture, a team has pinned down when humans learn
Children as young as seven are just as likely as adults to do the
right thing by their friends, in contrast to kids between three and
four, who are almost universally selfish, reports the study carried
out at the Universities of Zurich, Switzerland, and Erfurt,
What is fascinating about the study in the journal Nature, led by Prof
Ernst Fehr, is that children do not simply become more generous but
develop a clear sense of what is fair and what is not.
This development, which has never been shown to occur in other
species, "may be an important reason for the unique cooperative
abilities of humans," he says.
Unlike animal and insect societies, human societies are based on a
detailed division of labour and cooperation in large groups of
genetically unrelated individuals.
Human cooperation "differs spectacularly", he says,
"probably because humans also have a preference for others'
But the way a sense of fairness develops is not well understood and
Prof Fehr hopes that his new work will help shed light on why humans
are the champion cooperators of the natural world.
In the study done with 229 children between the ages of three and
eight at the University of Zurich Prof Fehr and Dr Helen Bernhard of
Zurich, working with Dr Bettina Rockenbach of the University of Erfur
carried out experiments to find out.
Around half of the children made their decisions in the knowledge that
the other child was from the same nursery school, kindergarten, or
The remaining half of the children knew that the other child was from
a different nursery school, kindergarten, or school.
Children were placed in pairs, and one of them was given the choice
between two options, such as "one for me, none for you"
versus one sweet each.
Sharing was with an anonymous other child (who changed from experiment
to experiment, so they did not fear retaliation if they were mean),
though they knew whether that child was from the same school.
Although often the child doing the choosing would receive one sweet
regardless of their choice, many of the younger children (aged 3-4)
still chose to deprive their fellow partner of a sweet.
There is a reluctance to share and "self-interest is the dominant
type of behaviour", which matches that seen in experiments with
our close relatives, chimpanzees.
But by the time the children are around seven or eight, a different
picture emerges: almost half of the children at this age share with
others and a clear majority shows a preference for the others'
well-being. Importantly, this tends to be the case when dealing with
one of their classmates.
The work forges an important link between being fair and looking after
those who are from the same group.
"The simultaneous development of altruistic behaviour and
preference of the own group provides interesting new impulses for the
conjecture that both of these processes are driven by the same
evolutionary process," says Prof Fehr, an economist at the
University of Zurich.
However, he stresses that this does not mean parents should not
encourage their children to share at an earlier age, since this
"might be a decisive factor in the evolution of inequity
Dr Bettina Rockenbach, contrasts the difference with chimpanzees'
behaviour. "Adult chimpanzees show no preference for sharing with
an identifiable colleague.
"In contrast, almost half of the seven to eight year old
children even share with an anonymous partner."