Kanngiesser on children’s application of the merit principle

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Kanngiesser, P., & Warneken, F. (2012). Young Children Consider Merit when Sharing Resources with Others. PLoS ONE, 7(8).

This is a great paper. It tackles the classic problem of merit as a principle of fairness (or of distributive justice): rewards should be distributed according to how much someone contributed to a task.

Kanngiesser and Warneken did two studies about children’s application of the merit principle. They made children play against a puppet at a game of collecting (“fishing”) coins that were later exchanged for rewards. They varied the work-contribution of both partners by manipulating how many coins each partner collected. Three- and five-year-olds kept, on average, significantly more stickers for themselves in the more-work condition than in the less-work condition. Children, in other words, kept fewer stickers in trials in which they had contributed less than in trials in which they had contributed more than the partner, showing that they took merit into account. Therefore, it seems that three- and five year- old children already use merit to share resources with others, even when sharing is costly for the child.

Although this appears to show that children take merit into account to calibrate their responses, it should also be noted that children almost never give away more than half of the stickers when the partner had worked more. “Even though children were clearly able to consider different work contributions, this tendency was constrained by a self-serving bias.” Thus, merit-based sharing is also mixed with or calibrated by the egotistic, self-serving bias documented by Rochat and many others.

The paper also presents a similar, second study, that shows that children’s sharing behavior is not just determined by their own absolute work-effort. Rather, children appear to take into account their own and their partner’s relative contributions when allocating resources. (Therefore, there  is some kind of elemental proportional or relational thinking here). “Young children can use comparisons between work-contribution to allocate resources.”

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