Science publishes new study on the development of fairness and inequality acceptance

One of the most fundamental questions in the social sciences is how morality and fairness considerations affect human behavior. Previous research has shown that adults differ greatly both in the extent to which they care about fairness considerations and in what they perceive as fair.

"This is, however, the first economic study to show how some of these differences are shaped in adolescence. In doing so, the study also sheds light on how our perceptions of fairness are affected both by the social environment and biological factors," explains Professor Bertil Tungodden from NHH in Norway.

The study was conducted at the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration (NHH) by the research team consisting of Associate Professor Ingvild Almås, Professor Alexander W. Cappelen, Associate Professor Erik Ø. Sørensen, and Professor Bertil Tungodden.

What is a fair inequality?
Most adults find some inequalities fair. Hence, in contrast, to young children, they do not always think of strict equality as the fair solution to a distributive problem. What explains this and how does this acceptance of inequality develop? These were motivating questions for the present study of the distributive behavior of 500 Norwegian school children 11-19 years old.

"By comparing the behavior for different age groups, we were able to established clear developmental patterns. In particular, the study shows that as children grow older, they increasingly find inequalities reflecting differences in individual achievements fair," continues Professor Tungodden.

Just luck?
In the experiment, the children worked on a task for 45 minutes. At the end of the work session, some were lucky and received a high price on their production; others were unlucky and received a low price. Thus, there were inequalities in earnings that reflected differences in both individual production and luck.

Each participant then had to decide how to distribute the total earnings between themselves and one other participant. Hence, they had to decide which inequalities they found fair.
"Here we observed a very interesting pattern," adds Professor Tungodden.

"While almost none of the younger children made a distinction between luck and individual production, a substantial share of the older children did so. They accepted inequalities reflecting differences in individual production, but not inequalities reflecting just luck."

Not so selfish
The children did not only have to consider how to think about fairness in their distributive choices, but also the extent to which they should act selfishly. In fact, they had the opportunity to take all of the earnings to themselves, leaving nothing to the other participant. In this way, the researchers could study how the level of selfishness develops in adolescence. Maybe surprisingly, the results show that the common intuition of the selfish adolescent does not hold true.

"Children in late adolescence gave away as much as the youngest children, both among males and females. Hence, the study clearly demonstrates that the most fundamental change in adolescence is related to how children perceive fairness, not the importance they attach to it," Professor Tungodden explains.

Implications for society
This study sheds some light on what shapes our moral preferences. Even though the study cannot identify any causal relationships, it suggests that both society and biological factors affect of our perceptions of fairness. In most societies, children are increasingly exposed to institutions rewarding individual achievements when they enter into adolescence.

This may contribute to explain why the researchers observed a move from a strict egalitarian view of fairness in mid-childhood towards the view that individual achievements should be rewarded in adolescence.

"The idea that social experiences contribute to shape our moral preferences is fundamental to how we design optimal policies and institutions in society as the educational system. It shows the importance of broadening the political debate to include the question; do we have a society that makes us aspire to the moral values that we find justifiable," asks Professor Bertil Tungodden.

Full bibliographic information


"Fairness and the Development of Inequality Acceptance," by I.Almas; A.W. Cappelen; E.O. Sorensen; B. Tungodden in Science, 28th May 2010.
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  • Bertil Tungodden (photo: NHH)

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