Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Egalitarianism in young children

Abstract

Human social interaction is strongly shaped by other-regarding preferences, that is, a concern for the welfare of others. These preferences are important for a unique aspect of human sociality—large scale cooperation with genetic strangers—but little is known about their developmental roots. Here we show that young children’s other-regarding preferences assume a particular form, inequality aversion that develops strongly between the ages of 3 and 8. At age 3–4, the overwhelming majority of children behave selfishly, whereas most children at age 7–8 prefer resource allocations that remove advantageous or disadvantageous inequality. Moreover, inequality aversion is strongly shaped by parochialism, a preference for favouring the members of one’s own social group. These results indicate that human egalitarianism and parochialism have deep developmental roots, and the simultaneous emergence of altruistic sharing and parochialism during childhood is intriguing in view of recent evolutionary theories which predict that the same evolutionary process jointly drives both human altruism and parochialism.

Your institute does not have access to this article

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

$32.00

All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: The relative frequency of egalitarian choices across all ingroup treatments.
Figure 2: Behavioural types in the ingroup condition.
Figure 3: Egalitarian choices across ingroup and outgroup conditions.
Figure 4: Gender differences in parochial egalitarianism in the envy game where the child could choose between (1,1) and (1,2).

References

  1. Bowles, S. Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions and Evolution 93–126 (Princeton Univ. Press, 2004)

    Google Scholar 

  2. Boyd, R. T. & Richerson, P. The Origin and Evolution of Cultures (Oxford Univ. Press, 2005)

    Google Scholar 

  3. Fehr, E. & Schmidt, K. M. A theory of fairness, competition, and cooperation. Q. J. Econ. 114, 817–868 (1999)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Fowler, J. H., Johnson, T. & Smirnov, O. Human behaviour: Egalitarian motive and altruistic punishment. Nature 433, E1 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Dawes, C. T. et al. Egalitarian motives in humans. Nature 446, 794–796 (2007)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Falk, A. & Fischbacher, U. A theory of reciprocity. Games Econ. Behav. 54, 293–315 (2006)

    MathSciNet  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Fehr, E. & Gächter, S. Altruistic punishment in humans. Nature 415, 137–140 (2002)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Gürerk, O., Irlenbusch, B. & Rockenbach, B. The competitive advantage of sanctioning institutions. Science 312, 108–111 (2006)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Hauert, C. et al. Via freedom to coercion: The emergence of costly punishment. Science 316, 1905–1907 (2007)

    ADS  MathSciNet  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Fong, C., Bowles, S. & Gintis, H. in Handbook on the Economics of Giving, Reciprocity, and Altruism (eds Kolm, S.-C. & Ythier, J. M.) (Elsevier, 2006)

    Google Scholar 

  11. Milinski, M., Semmann, D. & Krambeck, H. J. Reputation helps solve the ‘tragedy of the commons’. Nature 415, 424–426 (2002)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Brown, M., Falk, A. & Fehr, E. Relational contracts and the nature of market interactions. Econometrica 72, 747–780 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Nowak, M. A. & Sigmund, K. Evolution of indirect reciprocity. Nature 437, 1291–1298 (2005)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Rockenbach, B. & Milinski, M. The efficient interaction of indirect reciprocity and costly punishment. Nature 444, 718–723 (2006)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Harbaugh, W. T. & Krause, K. Children’s altruism in public good and dictator experiments. Econ. Inq. 38, 95–109 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. de Quervain, D. J.-F. et al. The neural basis of altruistic punishment. Science 305, 1254–1258 (2004)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Sutter, M. Outcomes versus intentions: On the nature of fair behavior and its development with age. J. Econ. Psychol. 28, 69–78 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Sutter, M. & Kocher, M. G. Trust and trustworthiness across different age groups. Games Econ. Behav. 59, 364–382 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Benenson, J. F., Pascoe, J. & Radmore, N. Children’s altruistic behavior in the dictator game. Evol. Hum. Behav. 28, 168–175 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Fliessbach, K. et al. Social comparison affects reward-related brain activity in the human ventral striatum. Science 318, 1305–1308 (2007)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Cesarini, D. et al. Heritability of cooperative behavior in the trust game. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 3721–3726 (2008)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Ellingsen, T. & Johannesson, M. Anticipated verbal feedback induces altruistic behavior. Evol. Hum. Behav. 29, 100–105 (2008)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Silk, J. B. et al. Chimpanzees are indifferent to the welfare of unrelated group members. Nature 437, 1357–1359 (2005)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Jensen, K., Hare, B., Call, J. & Tomasello, M. What’s in it for me? Self-regard precludes altruism and spite in chimpanzees. Proc. Biol. Sci. 273, 1013–1021 (2006)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Jensen, K., Call, J. & Tomasello, M. Chimpanzees are rational maximizers in an ultimatum game. Science 318, 107–109 (2007)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Burkart, J. M., Fehr, E., Efferson, C. & van Schaik, C. P. Other-regarding preferences in a non-human primate: Common marmosets provision food altruistically. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 19762–19766 (2007)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Vonk, J. et al. Chimpanzees do not take advantage of very low cost opportunities to deliver food to unrelated group members. Anim. Behav. 75, 1757–1770 (2008)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Turiel, E. in Handbook of Child Psychology Vol. 3 (eds Damon, W. & Eisenberg, N.) 863–932 (Wiley and Sons, 1998)

    Google Scholar 

  29. Knight, G. P. & Kagan, S. Development of prosocial and competitive behaviors in anglo-american and mexican-american children. Child Dev. 48, 1385–1394 (1977)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Eisenberg, N. & Mussen, P. H. The Roots of Prosocial Behavior in Children (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  31. Thompson, C., Barresi, J. & Moore, C. The development of future-oriented prudence and altruism in preschoolers. Cogn. Dev. 12, 199–212 (1997)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Eisenberg, N. & Fabes, R. A. in Handbook of Child Psychology Vol. 3 (eds Damon, W. & Eisenberg, N.) 701–778 (Wiley and Sons, 1998)

    Google Scholar 

  33. Murnigham, J. K. Ultimatum bargaining by children and adults. J. Econ. Psychol. 19, 415–445 (1998)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Warneken, F. & Tomasello, M. Altruistic helping in human infants and young chimpanzees. Science 311, 1301–1303 (2006)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Warneken, F. et al. Spontaneous altruism by chimpanzees and young children. PLoS Biol. 5, e184 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Charness, G. & Rabin, M. Understanding social preferences with simple tests. Q. J. Econ. 117, 817–869 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Goette, L., Huffman, D. & Meier, S. The impact of group membership on cooperation and norm enforcement: Evidence using random assignment to real social groups. Am. Econ. Rev. 96, 212–216 (2006)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Bernhard, H., Fischbacher, U. & Fehr, E. Parochial altruism in humans. Nature 442, 912–915 (2006)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Shinada, M., Yamagishi, T. & Ohmura, Y. False friends are worse than bitter enemies: “Altruistic” punishment of in-group members. Evol. Hum. Behav. 25, 379–393 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Choi, J. K. & Bowles, S. The coevolution of parochial altruism and war. Science 318, 636–640 (2007)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Van Lange, P. A. M. The pursuit of joint outcomes and equality in outcomes: An integrative model of social value orientation. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 77, 337–349 (1999)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Falk, A., Fehr, E. & Fischbacher, U. Driving forces behind informal sanctions. Econometrica 73, 2017–2030 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Boehm, C. Egalitarian behavior and reverse dominance hierachy. Curr. Anthropol. 34, 227–254 (1993)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Boehm, C. Impact of the human egalitarian syndrome on darwinian selection mechanics. Am. Nat. 150, S100–S121 (1997)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Wallace, B., Cesarini, D., Lichtenstein, P. & Johannesson, M. Heritability of ultimatum game responder behavior. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 15631–15634 (2007)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Chagnon, N. A. Life histories, blood revenge, and warfare in a tribal population. Science 239, 985–992 (1988)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Henrich, J. et al. “Economic man” in cross-cultural perspective: behavioral experiments in 15 small-scale societies. Behav. Brain Sci. 28, 795–855 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Dana, J., Cain, D. M. & Dawes, R. M. What you don’t know won’t hurt me: Costly (but quiet) exit in dictator games. Organ. Behav. Hum. Decis. Process. 100, 193–201 (2006)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Ellingsen, T. & Johannesson, M. Paying respect. J. Econ. Perspect. 21, 135–149 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Wellman, H. M., Cross, D. & Watson, J. Meta-analysis of theory-of-mind development: The truth about false belief. Child Dev. 72, 655–684 (2001)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

This paper is part of the Research Priority Program ‘Foundations of Human Social Behaviour—Altruism versus Egoism’ at the University of Zurich and of the Swiss National Competence Center in research on affective sciences, which is financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation. We also thank N. Kessler for her research assistance during the conduct of the experiments.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Ernst Fehr or Bettina Rockenbach.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

The file contains Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Table S1, Supplementary Figures S1-S3 and Supplementary Results. (PDF 373 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Fehr, E., Bernhard, H. & Rockenbach, B. Egalitarianism in young children. Nature 454, 1079–1083 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature07155

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/nature07155

Further reading

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing