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Young Children Understand, Practice Merit: Study

Update Date: Sep 15, 2012 06:01 AM EDT

A new study has found that children have a better understanding of the concept of fairness than what was previously thought.

The findings of the study,  conducted by Patricia Kanngiesser, a visiting graduate student from the University of Bristol, UK, and Felix Warneken, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard,  show children as young as 3 years considered merit (a key part of more-advanced ideas of fairness) when distributing resources.

Some previous studies had suggested that children, until a few years old, did not understand merit.

"What this finding demonstrates, I think, is that merit seems to be an essential part of the earliest forms of fairness that children display," Warneken said.

"That challenges the idea that young children only have a very egocentric notion that everything should go to them, and shows that from a very early age they are sensitive to the work contributions partners make. Going forward, I think we can begin to rule out some of the earlier theories about merit-that it required a great deal of socialization or sophisticated cognitive skills to emerge," he said.

Another key revelation of the study is that children not only understand merit, but practice it, even at a cost.

"It's one thing to say that those who work harder should get more," Warneken said. "But to be in that situation yourself and have to give something up to make it so, that's something different. What we have shown is that very young children are not only sensitive to that concept, but that it guides their behavior."

For the study, the children played a "fishing game" in a lab alongside a puppet, using poles with hooks to lift containers filled with coins from a bucket. While sometimes the child collected more coins, sometimes, it was the puppet that could collect more coins. After each game, the child was handed over 6 stickers and allowed to decide how many should be given to the puppet.

For the researcher's surprise, it was found that children always kept more stickers for themselves when they collected more coins.  However, a quarter of the children awarded the puppet with more stickers when it collected more coins.  Most of the other children were found to distribute the stickers equally.

The findings of the current study challenge the results suggested by some previous studies which claimed that children develop a sense of merit only after a few years.

"The traditional model in psychology has been that children go through different stages of fairness," Warneken said. "Initially, they are selfish. By a few years old, they develop the idea of equality, that we should each get half, regardless of [whether] you worked harder than I did, or you need more resources than I do. Finally, somewhere around school age, they develop the idea of equity or merit."

According to Warneken, the problem with the previous studies had been that most of them relied on a similar structure -- researchers read out clues to how children thought about cooperation by gauging their reaction to different stories.

"We thought that approach was too complex," Warneken said. "We were more interested in what children actually do. We can't say where it comes from, but I think we can conclude that for 3- to 5-year-old children, they are already paying attention to this principle."

The study appeared recently in PLoS ONE.

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