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Fair-mindedness comes with age

School-age children are already showing a sense of fairness Keystone

At age three children are inherently selfish, but by age eight most have developed a sense of fairness, a study involving Zurich researchers has found.

This content was published on August 29, 2008 - 15:37

The results, published in the renowned scientific journal Nature, could help explain why humans are able to cooperate – a trait that has helped in building society.

Swiss and German scientists, led by Ernst Fehr, head of the Institute for Empirical Research in Economics at Zurich University, asked 229 Swiss children of various ages to play sharing games using sweets.

The children were shown a photo of another and given options for distributing small portions of jellybeans, such as "one for me, none for you" and "one sweet each".

Although the child doing the choosing would receive a sweet regardless of their choice, most three to four year olds still chose to deprive their fellows of a jelly bean, reported Fehr.

But a different picture emerged for the seven to eight year olds. Most of these children preferred to share out the goodies fairly, as adults would.

In a surprising result, children without siblings proved to be more generous than those with siblings.

This type of behaviour sets humans apart from other animals - including man's close cousins, chimpanzees, which remain selfish throughout their lives, say researchers.

Love thy neighbour

However, the children in the study were not completely fair, as the seven and eight year olds often favoured those they knew – such as those attending the same nursery or school, according to the article published on Thursday.

This, the authors suggest, may reflect humans' inherent parochial attitude – a preference for one's own social group. This is thought to be crucial in the evolution of cooperative societies.

Human communities, unlike other species, are based on division of labour and cooperation in large groups of genetically unrelated people.

"The simultaneous development of altruistic behaviour and preference of your own group provides interesting new impulses to the conjecture that both of these processes are driven by the same evolutionary process," said Fehr in a Zurich University statement.

Nature or nurture?

Concern for others and sharing with those closest to you has a long evolutionary history, and was already marked during the prehistoric hunter-gatherer time, according to scientists.

However, there is a big debate about whether our tendency to maintain these qualities today is genetic or arises from upbringing and culture.

For example, young children learn that equal treatment and fairness are good forms of behaviour.

The results of the study suggest that nature and nurture have both shaped behavioural responses, even if the study was not designed to calculate the share of each influence, say scientists.

swissinfo with agencies

The study

Egalitarianism in young children by Ernst Fehr, Helen Bernhard and Bettina Rockenbach was published in Nature, volume 454 on August 28.

The experiment-based study included 229 children between the ages of 3 and 8.

It was undertaken by Zurich University and Erfurt University in Germany.

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