The ontogeny of fairness in seven societies


A sense of fairness plays a critical role in supporting human cooperation1,2,3. Adult norms of fair resource sharing vary widely across societies, suggesting that culture shapes the acquisition of fairness behaviour during childhood4,5. Here we examine how fairness behaviour develops in children from seven diverse societies, testing children from 4 to 15 years of age (n = 866 pairs) in a standardized resource decision task6,7. We measured two key aspects of fairness decisions: disadvantageous inequity aversion (peer receives more than self) and advantageous inequity aversion (self receives more than a peer). We show that disadvantageous inequity aversion emerged across all populations by middle childhood. By contrast, advantageous inequity aversion was more variable, emerging in three populations and only later in development. We discuss these findings in relation to questions about the universality and cultural specificity of human fairness.

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Figure 1: Experimental set-up.
Figure 2: Disadvantageous inequity aversion.
Figure 3: Advantageous inequity aversion.


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We are grateful to the following people for their help with this research: participating children, families, communities and schools; research assistants who collected and coded data; Harvard IQSS; J. Greene; P. Harris and our funding sources (Harvard Academy Junior Faculty Development Grant, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study (F.W.); Herchel Smith Harvard Undergraduate Science Research Program (A.B.); Harvard College Research Program (H.V.); John Templeton Foundation (P.R.B.); Harvard Department of Human Evolutionary Biology (K.M.)).

Author information




P.R.B., K.M., and F.W. planned the study and performed the data analyses. P.R.B., K.M., J.C., T.C.C., O.B., A.B., L.K., K.L.K., E.R., H.V., R.W. and F.W. contributed to the research and writing the paper.

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Correspondence to P. R. Blake or K. McAuliffe.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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The data and code for the statistical analyses are stored in Dryad Data package title: The ontogeny of fairness in seven societies;

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This file contains Supplementary Text, Supplementary Tables 1-6 and Supplementary Figures 1-5 – see contents page for details. (PDF 2067 kb)

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Blake, P., McAuliffe, K., Corbit, J. et al. The ontogeny of fairness in seven societies. Nature 528, 258–261 (2015).

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