At three years old, children understand the virtues of sharing, but they don’t follow the rules until they are older. The discrepancy may be related to how children weigh the importance of social norms, according to a study released today in PLOS One.
Earlier research has demonstrated that young children tend to favor themselves when they have the opportunity to divvy up treats, though they support sharing in principle. The current study is the first attempt to explain the gap between children’s words and actions, and offers insight into how the concept of fairness develops throughout the lifespan.
The researchers, led by psychologist Craig Smith at the University of Michigan, carried out the study in two parts. In the first experiment, researchers gave children aged three to eight an envelope containing four stickers and asked them how many they should share with another child who was not in the room. The researchers then told the children that another child had shared stickers with them, and asked the children how many stickers the other child should have shared.
Children of all ages agreed that the rules of sharing applied to themselves as well as others, but only the older children shared equally in practice. As the children got older, however, their justifications for their actions began to focus on fairness rather than their own desires.
In the second experiment, the researchers attempted to tease apart the children’s thought processes in deciding whether or not to share. Instead of asking the children how many stickers they should share, they asked them to anticipate how many they would share. The children were not asked to guess what others would give them in this experiment. All children correctly predicted their sharing behavior: Older children said they would share evenly, while younger children told the researchers that they would probably keep more stickers for themselves.
From the results of the two experiments, the researchers ruled out a previous explanation for the discrepancy between young children’s thoughts and actions — that they hold themselves to a different standard of sharing than they apply to others. Young children also didn’t modify their own sharing based on the assumption that others would be stingy; they expected other children to share a fair amount of stickers with them. Finally, the second experiment in which children correctly predicted how much they would share demonstrated that their behavior was not related to poor impulse control.
After eliminating other interpretations of the children’s sharing behavior, the researchers proposed an alternate hypothesis: that children ascribe more importance to social norms as they get older. The research supports Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, a long-standing construct in psychology, which proposes that children gradually move from valuing self-interest to valuing conformation with social norms. There is evidence that this development of respect for social order is what fostered large-scale cooperation in humans, enabling our ancestors to split from our closest evolutionary relative, the chimpanzee.
Since the study only included children up to the age of eight, the researchers could not make predictions about moral development past that age. It is interesting to note, however, that while children correctly assess their tendency to share, adults regularly predict that they will act fairly in hypothetical situations but then fall short of that standard in actuality. Apparently, moral development doesn’t progress in a straight line. Perhaps we can take a cue from three year olds and be more honest with ourselves about our intentions.