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Measuring fairness

By David, 2 December 2015

Two kids, one with a big slice of cake and one with a smaller slice.

What kids think is fair is different depending on the country they live in, according to research published this month.
© iStock.com/Fertnig

Imagine this game: you and a stranger are sitting in front of a machine. The machine has two piles of lollies. There’s one pile for you and one for your partner. You have two handles. Pull the green handle and you both get lollies. Pull the red one and no one gets anything.
Sounds simple, right? Pull the green handle and you both get lollies! But what if your partner gets a lot more than you do? Would you refuse the lollies if you though the game was unfair?

This machine was made by a team of scientists, who wanted to investigate fairness. They were interested to see how kids learn about fairness, and whether people would do the same thing everywhere in the world. So the scientists travelled the world, testing the game with children of different ages.

Young kids want lollies. Four year olds pulled the green lever most of the time, even when their partner was getting more than they were. Older kids noticed when things were unfair. They tended to reject offers when their partner got more than they did.

There was one test that got different results in different areas of the world. Sometimes, the scientists offered the player much more than their partner. In some countries, including Peru and Senegal, players usually accepted these offers. In other countries, including Canada and Uganda, older kids often rejected lots of lollies when their partner didn’t get as much.

These results suggest that fairness isn’t the same all around the world. Different communities and different people think that different things are fair. But worrying about fairness doesn’t always help – kids who always accepted the offers ended up with more lollies in the long run!

More information

Children’s sense of fairness shaped by culture

This article first appeared in Science by Email. Sign up to Science by Email to receive science news, activities and quizzes. It’s free!

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