Children Develop a Veil of Fairness
Executive Summary — Is children's fair behavior motivated by a desire to be fair —or merely the desire to appear fair? The results of several experiments suggest that as children grow older they become increasingly concerned with appearing fair to others, which may explain some of their increased tendency to behave fairly. Since even young children can radically shift their behavior from fair to unfair based on whether authority figures are aware of their behavior, it might be naive to believe that shrewd adults will be fair without similar oversight. By understanding the limitations of fairness, policymakers can discover how to leverage fairness to increase socially desirable behavior in some circumstances, while limiting its occasional wastefulness. Key concepts include:
- The experiments documented in this paper investigate children's motivation to appear fair to third parties, an important step forward in understanding how children develop self-presentational concerns.
- Children modify their behavior in order to improve their reputations with third parties. Children's fair behavior throughout middle childhood is at least partly motivated by wanting to appear fair to others.
- The research provides empirical support for the notion that people are especially likely to be unfair when there is a lack of knowledgeable oversight and when they can gain materially.
Previous research suggests that children develop an increasing concern with fairness over the course of development. Research with adults suggests that the concern with fairness has at least two distinct components: a desire to be fair but also a desire to signal to others that they are fair. We explore whether children's developing concern with behaving fairly towards others may in part reflect a developing concern with appearing fair to others. In Experiments 1-2, most 6- to 8-year-old children behaved fairly towards others when an experimenter was aware of their choices; fewer children opted to behave fairly, however, when they could be unfair to others yet appear fair to the experimenter. In Experiment 3, we explored the development of this concern with appearing fair by using a wider age range (6- to 11-year-olds) and a different method. In this experiment, children chose how to assign a good or bad prize to themselves and another participant by either unilaterally deciding who would get each prize or by using a fair procedure - flipping a coin in private. Older children were much more likely to flip the coin than younger children, yet were just as likely as younger children to assign themselves the good prize by reporting winning the coin flip more than chance would dictate. Overall, the results of these experiments suggest that as children grow older they become increasingly concerned with appearing fair to others, which may explain some of their increased tendency to behave fairly.