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.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.90 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Dawes, C. T., Fowler, J. H., Johnson, T., McElreath, R. & Smirnov, O. Egalitarian motives in humans. Nature 446, 794–796 (2007)
Fehr, E. & Schmidt, K. M. A theory of fairness, competition, and cooperation. Q. J. Econ. 114, 817–868 (1999)
Chudek, M. & Henrich, J. Culture-gene coevolution, norm-psychology and the emergence of human prosociality. Trends Cogn. Sci. 15, 218–226 (2011)
Henrich, J. et al. “Economic man” in cross-cultural perspective: behavioral experiments in 15 small-scale societies. Behav. Brain Sci. 28, 795–815 (2005)
Henrich, J. et al. Costly punishment across human societies. Science 312, 1767–1770 (2006)
Blake, P. R. & McAuliffe, K. “I had so much it didn’t seem fair”: Eight-year-olds reject two forms of inequity. Cognition 120, 215–224 (2011)
McAuliffe, K., Blake, P. R. & Warneken, F. Children reject inequity out of spite. Biol. Lett. 10, 20140743 (2014)
Brosnan, S. F. & de Waal, F. B. Evolution of responses to (un)fairness. Science 346, 1251776 (2014)
Loewenstein, G. F., Thompson, L. & Bazerman, M. Social utility and decision making in interpersonal contexts. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 57, 426–441 (1989)
Gürolu, B., Will, G. J. & Crone, E. A. Neural correlates of advantageous and disadvantageous inequity in sharing decisions. PLoS ONE 9, e107996 (2014)
McAuliffe, K., Blake, P. R., Kim, G., Wrangham, R. W. & Warneken, F. Social influences on inequity aversion in children. PLoS ONE 8, e80966 (2013)
Sheskin, M., Bloom, P. & Wynn, K. Anti-equality: social comparison in young children. Cognition 130, 152–156 (2014)
Leimgruber, K. L., Shaw, A., Santos, L. R. & Olson, K. R. Young children are more generous when others are aware of their actions. PLoS ONE 7, e48292 (2012)
Fehr, E., Bernhard, H. & Rockenbach, B. Egalitarianism in young children. Nature 454, 1079–1083 (2008)
Fehr, E., Glätzle-Rützler, D. & Sutter, M. The development of egalitarianism, altruism, spite and parochialism in childhood and adolescence. Eur. Econ. Rev. 64, 369–383 (2013)
Smith, C. E., Blake, P. R. & Harris, P. L. I should but I won’t: why young children endorse norms of fair sharing but do not follow them. PLoS ONE 8, e59510 (2013)
House, B. R. et al. Ontogeny of prosocial behavior across diverse societies. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 14586–14591 (2013)
Henrich, J., Heine, S. J. & Norenzayan, A. The weirdest people in the world? Behav. Brain Sci. 33, 61–83, discussion 83–135 (2010)
Herrmann, B., Thoni, C. & Gachter, S. Antisocial punishment across societies. Science 319, 1362–1367 (2008)
Henrich, J. et al. Markets, religion, community size, and the evolution of fairness and punishment. Science 327, 1480–1484 (2010)
Rochat, P. et al. Fairness in distributive justice by 3- and 5-year-olds across seven cultures. J. Cross Cult. Psychol. 40, 416–442 (2009)
Robbins, E. & Rochat, P. Emerging signs of strong reciprocity in human ontogeny. Front. Psychol. 2, 353 (2011)
Schäfer, M., Haun, D. B. & Tomasello, M. Fair is not fair everywhere. Psychol. Sci. 26, 416–442 (2015)
Paulus, M. Children’s inequity aversion depends on culture: a cross-cultural comparison. J. Exp. Child Psychol. 132, 240–246 (2015)
Shaw, A. & Olson, K. R. Children discard a resource to avoid inequity. J. Exp. Psychol. Gen. 141, 382–395 (2012)
Blake, P. R., McAuliffe, K. & Warneken, F. The developmental origins of fairness: the knowledge-behavior gap. Trends Cogn. Sci. 18, 559–561 (2014)
LoBue, V., Nishida, T., Chiong, C., DeLoache, J. S. & Haidt, J. When getting something good is bad: even three-year-olds react to inequality. Soc. Dev. 20, 154–170 (2011)
Keller, H. et al. Cultural models, socialization goals, and parenting ethnotheories: a multicultural analysis. J. Cross Cult. Psychol. 37, 155–172 (2006)
Sutter, M. Outcomes versus intentions: on the nature of fair behavior and its development with age. J. Econ. Psychol. 28, 69–78 (2007)
Bahry, D. L. & Wilson, R. K. Confusion or fairness in the field? Rejections in the ultimatum game under the strategy method. J. Econ. Behav. Organ. 60, 37–54 (2006)
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.)).
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
The data and code for the statistical analyses are stored in Dryad Data package title: The ontogeny of fairness in seven societies; http://dx.doi.org/10.5061/dryad.g3925.
About this article
Cite this article
Blake, P., McAuliffe, K., Corbit, J. et al. The ontogeny of fairness in seven societies. Nature 528, 258–261 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature15703
Scientific Reports (2021)
Early Childhood Education Journal (2021)
Scientific Reports (2020)
Nature Human Behaviour (2020)
Journal of Child and Family Studies (2020)