Garth Sundem

Brain Trust

Does Fairness Depend on Kindness or Justice?

An MIT study with the Tsimane People of Bolivia shows the origins of fairness.

Posted Nov 11, 2015

Wikipedia cc license
Source: Wikipedia cc license

Imagine you have to split a plate of cookies. Does the person who baked the cookies get the most or do you split them evenly? Most very young children would split them evenly — that's fair, right? But as kids get older, they start to take into account who did the work. MIT researchers working with the Tsimane' People, who live near San Borja, Bolivia, wondered what makes kids switch from "egalitarian" to "merit-based" opinions of fairness. Is it something natural in growing older? Is it socialization? Or is it something else?

To answer the question, the researchers gathered 70 children ranging in age from 3 to 12 from six villages in the area. They assessed kids' years in school and their counting ability. Then they explained the following scenario: “One day, two children had been sent to pick bananas. The first child worked very hard and brought back many bananas. The second child did not work very hard and only brought back a few bananas.” The experimenter represented this by putting 18 banana cutouts next to the hard-working child and 4 banana cutouts next to the less hard-working child. Now the kids were given cookie cutouts and asked to distribute them as rewards “fairly” between these kids.

As you would expect, older kids tended to choose a merit-based distribution, giving more cookies to the hard-working kid. But it wasn’t clean. There were older kids who were egalitarians and younger kids who decided on merit-based fairness. There was, as we said earlier, something else going on. And due to a unique feature of Tsimane' culture, the researchers were able to discover this "something else." See, in this society, children learn to count at very different ages.

Instead of depending on age, merit-based or egalitarian ideas of fairness depended on whether kids could count. Fifty-seven percent of kids who couldn’t count split the cookies evenly; 74 percent of kids who could count gave more cookies to the hard-working kid.

“Our results show that numerical concepts can influence how we reason about fairness,” the authors write.

We think of fairness as a moral idea, something that is either intrinsic or learned through experience — a culture's opinion of right and wrong. But this study shows that the human idea of fairness may also be based on a sense of the meaning of numbers. It's as if children who were capable of asking how much, asked how much does a person deserve — the more a person puts in, the more they deserved to get out. A child that hadn't yet internalized the meaning of numbers glosses over merit to split things easily, evenly.

It turns out that fairness, and cookies, are in the understanding of the beholder.