Lawrence T. White Ph.D.

Culture Conscious

That’s Not Fair!

Children in different cultures have different standards of fairness.

Posted Mar 31, 2016

This post was written by Steven Jackson.

In this presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders has captivated and mobilized a huge swath of the electorate with his call for a political revolution and an end to income inequality. At one rally, he boiled down his message to a simple idea: America should be “a society based on justice, based on equality, based on fairness."

So how do we define something as abstract as fairness? Most of us think we have a pretty good sense of what’s fair and what’s not, but where do our standards for fairness come from? Are they a human universal, part of some evolutionary adaptation that supports cooperation? Or are they socially acquired norms, shaped by culture?

In much of the Western world, people decide what’s fair by considering merit. When distributing resources, they look at the amount of work put in by each party and share accordingly (Almås, Cappelen, Sørensen, & Tungodden, 2010). But research also hints at cultural variation: In some societies, people are less concerned with merit-based sharing and more concerned with how much each person needs and maintaining interpersonal harmony (Carson & Banuazizi, 2008).  

A team of researchers, led by psychologist Marie Schäfer, recently investigated cultural differences in fairness and distributive justice. The team compared the sharing behaviors of children in three very different societies.

Davida3/Creative Commons 2.0
Young men in traditional Samburu garb.
Source: Davida3/Creative Commons 2.0

Children in the first group came from a Western, industrialized society—a suburban town in Germany. Children in the second group were part of the ≠Akhoe Hai || om culture in Namibia. The Hai || om is an egalitarian foraging society with a set of social norms that discourages the accumulation of wealth and status and promotes modesty and sharing. Children in the third group were part of the Samburu culture in Kenya. The Samburu raise livestock and have a gerontocracy—an age-based hierarchy in which elders have most of the power and status.

In Schäfer’s study, all 155 children were between 4 and 11 years old, and most were enrolled in school or preschool. Schäfer split the children into same-age, same-sex dyads and asked them to play a simple game.

Two children sat on opposite ends of a crate, each with a transparent tank in front of them. The tanks were filled with small magnetic cubes, and their task was to use little magnetic fishing rods to gather as many cubes as possible. Some cubes were more magnetic than others, so the experimenter could control the score and outcome of every game.

In the “unequal-merit” condition, one child fished out nine cubes, while the other got only three. In the “equal-merit” condition, both children got six. In the “unequal no-merit” condition, children didn’t fish out cubes at all. Instead, they were given unequal shares—one child got nine cubes while the other got only three.

After the children tallied their scores, the experimenter placed 12 rewards—pieces of candy or dried fruit—on the table, with instructions to split the rewards however they pleased. In this way, the experimenter could determine if the children considered merit (as defined by the number of cubes fished out of the tank) when deciding how to fairly divide their spoils.

As it turns out, the kids had very different ideas about what was fair, depending on their cultural background.

The German kids behaved pretty much how the researchers expected: They tended to use merit as a guide. If both kids fished out the same number of cubes, most pairs split their rewards down the middle. If one child fished out more cubes than the other, the child with more cubes received more rewards.

The Hai || om children also took merit into account but, unlike the Germans, they didn’t use the number of cubes as a strict guide. If a German winner of the cube game got 9 rewards—one for every cube retrieved—a Hai || om winner probably got only 7 rewards. A desire to recognize merit was balanced by a desire to treat everyone equally.

The Samburu children had the widest range of sharing behavior. They were the most unequal sharers of the three groups, but merit didn’t seem to matter at all. In games where one child fished out more cubes, he or she actually received fewer rewards about half the time.

Schäfer and her colleagues point to cultural differences to explain the results. In large-scale societies like Germany, a merit-based conception of fairness makes it possible to regulate transactions between strangers. Fairness is especially important in such a society, because in any given transaction you may not have an opportunity to encounter that person again and even things out.

In small-scale societies like the Samburu and Hai || om, most exchanges take place between people who know each other and will interact again. In this setting, notions of fairness may be influenced more by personal relationships and less by impersonal abstractions like merit.

In all societies, children probably acquire their sense of fairness by observing adults. In the Hai || om culture, for example, equality and evenly distributed wealth are strong values; children internalize these values at an early age and apply them in daily interactions. In the Samburu culture, however, decisions about resource distribution are made autocratically by group elders. In this environment, children have little experience making decisions about how to share resources, which can explain why Samburu children displayed such a mixed bag of sharing behavior.

One thing is certain: Even in a simple, constrained environment like the experiment described above, there’s a world of possibility when it comes to what “fairness” means.


Almås, I., Cappelen, A. W., Sørensen, E. O., & Tungodden, B. (2010). Fairness and the development of inequality acceptance. Science, 328(5982), 1176-1178.

Carson, A. S., & Banuazizi, A. (2008). "That's not fair": Similarities and differences in distributive justice reasoning between American and Filipino children. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 39(4), 493-514.

Sanders seeks 'society of fairness' (n.d.). Retrieved March 31, 2016, from

Schäfer, M., Haun, D. B., & Tomasello, M. (2015). Fair is not fair everywhere. Psychological Science, 26(8), 1252-1260.