Character  &  Context

Children’s Responses to Inequality Vary Around the World

A drawing of two people, facing a table with items on it and a scale. Another sequence of the image shows the option of rejecting the items and no one receiving anything.

By Peter Blake

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.” (Attributed to Sophie Tucker)

A colleague receives a larger bonus than you although you feel that you both worked equally hard.  This feels unfair, and makes you upset.  But what if you had received the larger bonus? This situation is also unfair, because equal work is leading to unequal outcomes.  But our experience and our intuitions suggest that we would respond differently to these cases: getting too little credit feels worse—and more unfair—than getting too much credit.

Research in psychology and behavioral economics has repeatedly confirmed this asymmetry in how adults respond to inequalities.  People have negative emotional responses to receiving less and will even pay to reduce the advantage of another.  Similar responses are much more rare when one bears the advantage. 

However, until recently, it has been unclear where these behavioral responses come from.  Do children have a more consistent sense of fairness than adults?  Or is the aversion to getting less more deeply rooted in development than the aversion to getting more? 

These questions get to the heart of developmental science.  By examining when phenomena like fairness emerge in childhood, we can identify which dimensions are likely part of our evolved cognition and which depend more on learning.

In prior research with my colleagues Katherine McAuliffe (Boston College) and Felix Warneken (Harvard University), we found that as early as 4 years of age children will pay to prevent a peer from receiving more candy. However, these children were happy to receive an advantage over the peer.  By 8 years of age, children would forsake a large reward to prevent a peer from receiving less.  This asymmetry in development supports the idea that different psychological processes are at work depending on which side of inequality one faces.

We have replicated these results, and other labs have found similar results using different experimental paradigms.  However, all of this work had been limited to children in the US, and we were reluctant to make broader claims about the universality of these phenomena.  To get a better sense of the scope of the effect, we wanted to test samples not drawn from typical Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) populations.

We expanded our team to include anthropologists and psychologists with research sites in seven societies.  We included small villages in India, Peru, Mexico, and Uganda, as well as a city in Senegal.  We also tested two WEIRD samples: in the US and in Canada.  The results, published in Nature in December, revealed both similarities and differences across cultures. 

Children rejected the disadvantage, preferring nothing over getting less than the peer, in all of the societies tested, evidence of a potential universal bias.  By contrast, children rejected an advantage in only three of the sites tested – the US, Canada, and Uganda – and this emerged later in development than the disadvantageous bias.  This pattern suggests that an aversion to advantage is a product of cultural differences, and thus learned—although what causes this phenomena is still unknown.

Although much work needs to be done to understand the causes of the cultural variability we found, it seems clear that two different psychological mechanisms are at work depending on which side of inequality one faces.  Receiving less motivates a desire to reduce inequality, even at a cost to oneself, and this bias is less susceptible to social and cultural influences.  Receiving more does not always motivate a similar desire to reduce inequality, particularly at a high cost to oneself.  Rather, this behavior seems to be learned, cultivated in specific social environments.


Peter Blake, Ed.D. is currently an Assistant Professor at Boston University in the Dept. of Psychological and Brain Sciences.  Find out more about his research at: www.bu.edu/sdll.

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