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Fair is fair. Norwegian school children in this study worked hard to earn their money before deciding on a fair way to share it.

Image courtesy of Knut Egil Wang

How Children Outgrow Socialism

Children start off like Karl Marx, but they eventually become more like a member of the International Olympic Committee. That’s the conclusion of a new study, which finds that children's views on fairness change from egalitarian to merit-based as they grow older. The results help explain why society rewards high achievers with high pay, and they could help educators better motivate children.

The find comes thanks to an economic experiment known as the dictator game. Researchers led by experimental economist Alexander Cappelen of the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration in Bergen recruited youths aged 10 through 18 from schools near Bergen. Each child was paired with another student he or she didn’t know and then given a chance to earn real money by repeatedly noting the appearance of a particular three-figure number on a computer screen filled with large tables of numbers. Some students performed better at the task and thus earned more money. At the end of the game, the money earned by the pair was pooled, and one of the two students—the dictator—was asked to divvy up the cash with his or her partner in a way that he or she deemed fair.

Age determined how evenly the children divided up the earnings. About two-thirds of the youngest children, aged 10 to 11, split the pot evenly regardless of their own or their partner’s achievements. Older teenagers, however, split the pot based on achievement. Among 18-year-olds, for example, only 22% split the pot evenly with their partner, whereas 43% kept more for themselves because they felt like they’d earned it, the researchers report in tomorrow's issue of Science.

The results suggest that concepts of fairness become more merit-based as children grow up and as they participate in activities like sports and school that reward achievement, Cappelen says. "Adolescence is a very important period for shaping children’s fairness views.” The results could also help educators set up reward systems that the students themselves consider fair, he adds, which could lead to more harmonious classrooms and better student performance.

“I think it’s an interesting and important study,” says behavioral economist James Konow of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. But he is not as convinced as the authors that concepts of fairness are shaped by experience.

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