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Kids as young as four are fair: study

‘It’s not fair’ is a refrain whined by children the world over. Though a study has found seven-year-olds may comprehend this concept more so than four-year-olds.

Two groups of children, one aged four to five, the other aged seven to eight, were each split into two groups: red and yellow. They were then given stickers. While the older and younger kids generally shared the stickers equally between red and yellow groups, the older group demonstrated an additional, pro-social behaviour: “When the older children saw members of their group behaving in an unfavourable way, they liked their group less and they no longer wanted to belong to that group,” study co-author Matti Wilks said.

Wilks, a PhD candidate at UQ’s Early Cognitive Development Centre, explained the psychology behind ‘in-group’ favouritism, which the child cohorts displayed to varying degrees. An in-group is “any group with which you identify”. This can include a family, a friendship group, or a sports team. It can also include broader categories, like racial groups. At its narrowest, an in-group can form simply because someone tells it to. This is what’s known as a minimal in-group paradigm, “…based on some research with adults where all it took for them to prefer members of their own groups was being told someone, who they’d never seen, got the same score as them,” Wilks summarised.

“So what we did is have children pick a colour randomly out of a bag or flip a coin and see which colour it landed on, and we said to them ‘ok you got that colour so now you’re in the yellow group’, or, ‘now you’re in the red group’, and that’s enough to make them prefer their group.”

After running the experiment, she deduced that children’s preference for in-groups coexists with their desire for fairness. And although the younger children appeared to disregard immoral, in-group behaviour, this doesn’t mean they themselves are amoral.

“I think maybe they were a little bit overwhelmed by all the information they were being asked to consider,” she posited.


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