Young children think that teachers who count out rewards are fairer that those who don’t

By Matthew Warren

In just the first few years of life, children develop a strong sense of fairness. At 16 months old, toddlers will reward someone who has fairly distributed food or toys between two other people, for example. By two, they tend to share toys equally themselves.

A new study shows that children’s judgements of fairness also take into account the method by which resources have been allocated. Kids as young as four think that a teacher who has counted out cookies for a reward is fairer than one who gives that exact same reward without counting.  The research, published in Cognition, suggests that when judging fairness, young children are able to consider the motivations of the person distributing resources.

Colin Jacobs and colleagues from Yale University conducted a series of studies, all following the same basic methodology. First, children aged four to six were told a story about two puppets who had been asked by their teachers to help clean the classroom. They learned that one of the puppets had worked hard and cleaned a lot, while the other had not worked very hard. The children were then shown videos of two teachers distributing cookies to the puppets as a reward.

In the key study, one teacher split the cookies up into two piles by sight before giving them to the puppets, while the other teacher counted them out. In both cases, the hard-working puppet received seven cookies and the lazier puppet received three. But when asked which of the teachers was more fair, 73% of the kids chose the teacher who had counted the cookies out.

These results suggest that the kids weren’t only concerned with whether the ultimate distribution of cookies was fair — they also considered the process that the teacher used to divvy them up. This implies that they had some understanding of the teachers’ intent: the counting teacher presumably wanted to divide up the resources precisely, to appropriately reward the hard-working puppet, while the other teacher was less concerned about being precise — and so less concerned about being fair.

In the next study, the team explored an alternative explanation: that the kids believed the fairer teacher is the one who puts more effort into the task — in this case, the one who counts all the cookies. This time, one of the teachers had to spend a lot of effort moving a stack of notebooks out of the way, one-by-one, before dividing up the cookies by sight. The other counted out the cookies as before. Again, most of the kids — 70% — said that the counting teacher was fairer, suggesting that they weren’t simply considering how much effort the teachers put in.

In a final study, both teachers acted unfairly, giving just three cookies to the hard worker and seven to the one who had done minimal cleaning, and the kids were asked which teacher was very unfair. Now 69% of the children said the counting teacher was the unfair one. This again suggests that the kids were thinking about the motivations of the two teachers, with the counting teacher appearing to more purposefully ensure that the hard working puppet did not get a fair reward.

There are some limitations to the work. In particular, the kids were always forced to choose which of the two teachers was fairer (or which was unfair). The question implies from the outset that one teacher is known to be fairer than the other, so the children might be making an informed guess about which teacher the researchers are most likely to consider fair. An alternative would be to get kids to rate how fair each teacher is — though this is perhaps a hard task for such young children. Overall, though, the results suggest that children as young as four have quite a sophisticated understanding of how people use counting to distribute resources fairly.

Not just what you did, but how: Children see distributors that count as more fair than distributors who don’t

Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest