Egalistarism and parochialism in young children

Fehr, E., Bernhard, H., & Rockenbach, B. (2008). Egalitarianism in young children. Nature, 454(7208), 1079–1083.

This is a classic and crucial study. The authors use an extremely simple experimental design (inspired in previous work with non-human primates) to test the hypothesis of a parallel development of children’s egalitarianism and parochialism. Children between 3 and 8 years of age are presented three situations:

  • Prosocial: either take one candy and assign one candy to another child, or take one candy and assign none to another child ((1,1) vs. (1,0).
  • Envy: either take one candy and assign one candy to another child, or take one candy and assign two candies to another child ((1,1) vs. (1,2).
  • Costly sharing: either take one candy and assign one candy to another child, or take two candies and assign none to another child ((1,1) vs. (2,0).

The study shows that children, as they grow, aim at reducing the inequality between themselves and their partner, regardless of whether the inequality is to their advantage or disadvantage.

The authors found that children at age 3–4 show little willingness to share resources (as tested by the sharing situation) but a non-negligible percentage of the children is willing to make choices that benefit the recipient if it is not costly (in the envy and prosocial situations). After this age, other-regarding preferences develop, which take the form of inequality aversion instead of a preference for increasing the partner’s or the joint payoff.

Thus, across the three situations, egalitarian choices increase with age. “If we pool the children’s choices in all three games, the percentage of children who preferred the egalitarian allocation in all three games increases from 4% at age 3–4 to 30% at age 7–8.” Also, “(…) the share of subjects who maximize the partner’s payoff by choosing both (1,1) in the prosocial game and (1,2) in the envy game decreases sharply from 43% at age 3–4 to 16% at age 7–8.” Egalitarianism rises as generosity declines.

This emphasis on equality (or inequality aversion) seems to be uniquely human; no animal shows a comparable behavioral pattern.

In addition, children (especially boys) seem to show an in-group bias. For example, in the envy game, boys tend to do egalitarian distributions (1,1) rather than generous distributions (1,2) more with the outgroup than with the ingroup. The effects of parochialism are also apparent in the other situations: In the prosocial game, the children remove inequality that favors themselves more often if the partner is an ingroup member. In the sharing game, egalitarian choices slightly decrease over time if the partner is an outgroup member, whereas sharing with ingroup members strongly increases with age

The conclusion is not only that egalitarianism and parochialism are important forces driving children’s judgments, but also that is that a utilitarian ethics seems absent from children’s minds. In other words, children do not try to maximize the total sum of benefits for everybody. That is why, in the “envy” situation, children (at least after 5 or 6 years of age) tend to prefer (1,1) over (1,2); that is, egalitarianism trumps maximization of benefits. Utilitarianism is not a factor in children’s reasoning. Equality aversion and parochialism grow between 3 and 8 years of age and explain children’s responses.

Comparing this paper with other studies, it is interesting to note that equality is said to appear at 5, or 6, or 7 or 8 years of age depending on the study, the methodology used and the way the results are interpreted (e.g., Rochat says that children at 5 are already steady defenders of strict equality and that they even can adopt an ethical stance, when they are willing to sacrifice their own resources to punish an agent that is not observing equality).

In addition, it is relevant to understand young children’s (3 and 4 year-olds) apparent discrepant or erratic behavior (sometimes they are generous, at other times they are selfish). In a previous study I claimed that the reason for this is that those children “don’t frame their relationships in terms of strict-reciprocity (tit for tat) contracts. It should be no surprise that their behavior in economic games and fairness experiments is consistent with a culture of associative reciprocity and the gift economy, which predominate in the context of familial institutions and peer relationships at this age. Preschoolers might appear as non-strategic from the point of view of economists who identify rationality with calculating the best means to achieve a desired end-result (individual profit, equality, etc.), but they are actually well adapted to their real social context. (…)  The apparently selfish tendencies of 3-year-olds moderate themselves as children mature, so that between five and seven years of age (depending on the specific study) children start demanding fairness and rejecting inequality. In certain cases, they even embrace an ethical stance and engage in costly punishment. This emerging mindset is in harmony with the strict reciprocity embedded in experiences such as bartering with peers or dealing with money and prices, which gain prominence in children’s daily life as they grow up. In the culture of adults, barter and monetary transactions are considered fair when both parties receive an equivalent value. Similarly, fair distributions between partners with the same merit are expected to be 50/50. This kind of institutional context comes to dominate children’s interactions and provides them with a new sense of fairness.”

Contra Locke

(…) On the contrary, Nozick writes, there are instances where by mixing one’s labor with something in nature, one loses one’s labor without making any gain: “If I own a can of tomato juice and spill it in the sea so that its molecules (made radioactive, so I can check this) mingle evenly throughout the sea, do I thereby come to own the sea, or have I foolishly dissipated my tomato juice?” The answer is obviously the latter, he argues.

Use, possession, ownership. An ongoing conversation with P. Kanngiesser

Recently Patricia Kanngiesser sent me a copy of the intro to her doctoral thesis, “Biological and Developmental Origins of Ownership Concepts.” I really enjoyed reading it. It’s extremely well written and well argued. She provides a number of new insights on the development of ownership with great clarity. It’s just brilliant.

One of the important topics Patricia addresses is the conceptual distinction between possession and property. She argues that, while possession presupposes physical proximity between possessors and their things, ownership holds even in the owner’s absence. Possession requires the simultaneous presence of owners and their objects, ownership does not.

Based on this distinction and on extant research on ownership in animals and humans (children and adults), she claims that animals show only possession-related behavior that is crucially dependent on an animal being in physical proximity to a thing. In other words, ownership is absent in animals; animals display rudimentary precursors of ownership-related behaviors only.

“While animals show attachment to things such as territories, food, and mates, evidence for recognizing possession and respecting others’ possessions irrespective of factors such as dominance rank or competitive advantages is sparse. Apart from one rare example of respect for possession of females in baboons, most respect for possession seems to derive from the fact that possessors manage to avoid dominant rivals (e.g. by carrying possession away). Finally, universal social rules regarding ownership are absent from animal societies. While attachment to things could form a biological basis for ownership-related behaviors in humans, an ownership concept that encompasses recognition and respect of ownership as well as a complex web of social rules is probably the unique product of a human socio-cultural environment.” (Patricia Kanngiesser, doctoral thesis).

Up to here I summarized Patricia’s position, and I agree with her. Now, it must be noted that even animal possession is not a two-term relationship (between an individual agent and a thing) but always presupposes a social context. There are possession conflicts because there are individuals competing for objects and for recognition, or for “prestige” as Philippe Rochat would say. PK notes that “about 75% of young children’s conflicts with peers revolve around the possession of objects” and that “21-month-olds often view a toy as more attractive after another child has named or touched it” (Hay & Ross, 1982). Objects become desirable because they are desired by other children; once a child children obtains an object, she wants to be recognized as possessor by other children; she now has exclusive access to the object and can exclude other children. As PK writes, “it is thus conceivable that conflicts concerning the possession of objects are also driven by social motives such as establishing social relationships and exerting social influence.” This, again, suggests not a dual relationship agent-object but at least a triadic relationship agent-object-agent.

Furthermore, PK also notes that “prior possession presents an advantage in conflicts over objects”, a finding corroborated many times both with young children and with some animal species. Now, if current possessors tend to win possession conflicts, it’s because other agents can identify them as possessors. Which again suggests not a dual relation agent-object but a triadic relation where other agents can identify possessors and interact with them accordingly. In this incipient relationship between a non-possessor and a possessor, even if “universal rules” are still absent (as PK argues), there is something like a proto-rule at work: perhaps for strategic reasons that can be modeled in terms of game theory (costs of trying to take an object from a possessor are high), perhaps for efficiency reasons (groups are more stable when possessors are not attacked and conflicts are minimized), current possession is respected, which might be a precursor of institutional or conventional rules such as the prior possession rule (which establishes that prior possession is a justification for ownership).

Therefore, I stick with my position that you need to discriminate three different categories:

– Use: dual relationship between an agent and an object (food, toy, instrument, etc.)

– Possession: triadic relationship agent-object-agent that requires one agent (called the possessor) physically controlling the object, while the other agent is excluded from this relationship. In this scenario, some proto-rules start to play out.

– Ownership: a relationship between agent and object that is not based in physical control but in normative rules (“universal” rules, as PK calls them). The title of owner gives the owner privileged access to the object and, in general, a number of rights and duties.


Psychological ownership

Pierce, J. L., Kostova, T., & Dirks, K. T. (2002). The state of psychological ownership: integrating and extending a century of research abstract. Review of General Psychology, 7(314), 1–35.

Remarkable article on the psychology of ownership. This is something different from what I’m used to; it’s something I wasn’t expecting: a general psychology approach to possessive behavior that aims at taking into account biological and cultural, individual and social, affective and cognitive components.

By “psychological ownership” the authors understand: a) our sense of possession, what we feel and mean when we say “mine”, b) the object of ownership (or “target”) that becomes part of the extended self of the owner, c) a cognitive-affective complex.

The authors distinguish between the motives or roots of ownership, and the routes through which psychological ownership emerges. The motives or roots include:

  1. efficacy and effectance: possessions are important to individuals because they are instrumental for exercising control over the physical environment and over people.
  2. self-identity: possessions serve as symbolic expressions of the self.
  3. having a place to dwell: importance of having a secure base, a refuge, a shelter in the world.

My only criticism is that sometimes the language of the paper is somewhat vague. Ownership is a word with many uses and varied meanings. We may feel that we own a ball, a car, an idea, a job, a certain position in the family, in an organization or even a nation. Is the meaning of “owning” the same in all these cases? The authors claim that “when individuals feel ownership for a social entity (e.g., family, group, organization, or nation) they are likely to engage in citizenship behaviors toward that entity”. Yet we usually say that we belong to the group, organization or nation, not that it belongs to us. The meaning of belonging, owning and possession are not probably the same as when we talk about owning an object. The construct “ownership” is more complex and multifaceted than the authors assume; the meaning of ownership varies with the target of ownership and other factors. This potential criticism is not discussed in the paper.

Overall, an interesting and thought provoking article. In addition, the authors have done an extensive review of the literature and there are many intriguing quotations. For example, I should check W. James (1890) who apparently establishes a relationship between “me” and that which is considered “mine”.

Carol Rose on the moral subject of property

Rose, C. M. (2007). The Moral Subject of Property. William and Mary Law Review, 48(5), 1897–1926.

In this beautifully written article, Carol Rose makes the argument that although property arrangements might seem unfair or unjust in many respects (how it is acquired, how it is distributed across society, its effect on the commoditization of sacred or moral aspects of social life), the institution of property is nevertheless beneficial for society at large insofar as it creates stability and incentives for individuals to take care of their property, invest, trade and create more value for society at large in the long run. So even when arrangements are not perfect in many specific cases (because they have morally questionably implications), it’s better to tolerate these shortcomings and to apply the established rules of ownership acquisition and distribution, because “property, as an institution, requires stability in people’s expectations about their own and other people’s claims.”

The article also contains a couple of nice quotes about one of my favorite topics: the relationship between associative and strict reciprocity: “Gift exchange cements community bonds-from a community of two on up to many more-keeping all the participants in a vague but nevertheless socially and emotionally charged condition of mutual give and take.” “(…) Gift giving differs from market exchange because through gifts, each party engages in imaginative participation in the life of the other, helping to cement relationships.”

Possession as the origin of property

Rose, C. M. (1985). Possession as the Origin of Property. Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 1830.

Fascinating, beautifully written article by Carol Rose explaining the relationship between possession (especially first or prior possession) and ownership from the point of view of legal theory.

Many psychologists investigating ownership in children have tried to disentangle first possession from other principles such as invested labor. Also, psychologists have tended to consider possession as a kind of direct, physical relationship between a person and an object. Rose, however, provides reasons to mistrust those positions and makes clear that possession is much more complex than common sense dictates, for three reasons at least:

1) Legal decisions that supposedly applied a first possession doctrine (e.g., the famous Pierson v. Post case) incorporate other principles as well, such as “reward to useful labor”. Actually, John Locke’s labor theory of property can be seen as very close and akin to the first possession principle. He makes it clear that it is the first agent who takes control of a natural resource through her work that gains ownership over it. He uses the simple example of picking an apple: the apple becomes mine when I pick it because I have added my labor to it and made it my property. Notice that, in this case, the added labor is minimal, and the crucial factor is that I picked the apple before anybody else. First possession and labor theories of ownership are similar and related to each other; they even imply each other.

2) Possession is not a direct grasping or grabbing of an object. Possession only takes place in the context of intersubjective conflict, or at least competition and potential conflict. Although there are precursors of possessiveness and territoriality in animals, human possession is not a purely natural, physical relationship between a person and a thing. Rather, it is a social act that follows proto-institutional or institutional (in Searle’s sense) rules.

3) Among those social and proto-institutional rules, the rules establishing what counts as giving public notice of an act of possession play a crucial role. For instance, what does a conqueror need to do in order to announce to the world that she has discovered virgin territory and therefore has a legal claim over it?

According to Rose, “common law defines acts of possession as some kind of statement. As Blackstone said, the acts must be a declaration of one’s intent to appropriate.” “Possession now begins to look even more like something that requires a kind of communication, and the original claim to the property looks like a kind of speech, with the audience composed of all others who might be interested in claiming the object in question. Moreover, some venerable statutory law obligates the acquiring party to keep on speaking, lest he lose his title by “adverse possession.”

Possession then requires the possessor to perform certain speech acts (in the technical sense this term has for speech act theory).

I quote Rose again:

“Possession as the basis of property ownership, then, seems to amount to something like yelling loudly enough to all who may be interested. The first to say, “This is mine,” in a way that the public understands, gets the prize, and the law will help him keep it against someone else who says, “No, it is mine.” But if the original communicator dallies too long and allows the public to believe the interloper, he will find that the interloper has stepped into his shoes and has become the owner.”

“Similar ideas of the importance of communication, or as it is more commonly called, “notice,” are implicit in our recording statutes and in a variety of other devices that force a property claimant to make a public record of her claims on pain of losing them altogether. Indeed, notice plays a part in the most mundane property-like claims to things that the law does not even recognize as capable of being reduced to ownership. “Would you please save my place?” one says to one’s neighbor in the movie line, in order to ensure that others in line know that one is coming back and not relinquishing one’s claim.”

“Thus, it turns out that the common law of first possession, in rewarding the one who communicates a claim, does reward useful labor; the useful labor is the very act of speaking clearly and distinctly about one’s claims to property.”



Tisak and Turiel on moral and prudential rules

Tisak, M. S., & Turiel, E. (1984). Children’s Conceptions of Moral and Prudential Rules. CHILD DEVELOPMENT, 55(3), 1030–1039.

This article examines the relationship between moral and prudential rules in children. Moral and prudential events are similar in that they may involve consequences (for example, harm) to persons, but also differ in that morality bears upon social relations and prudence does not. The researchers interviewed children by using scripts depicting transgressions of moral (stealing, pushing) and prudential (running in the rain) rules. Participants were between 6 and 10 years of age. The authors conclude that 6-year-old children can already differentiate between moral and prudential rules. Children’s evaluations of moral and prudential rules are very similar in many respects; however, the authors claim that the reasons given in justification of moral rules focus on both consequences (harm) and the regulation of social relations (justice, fairness), while justification for the prudential rule is based only on consequences. Moral rules were also attributed more importance than prudential rules. As is typical in Moral Domain Theory, the interview is purely verbal and children are required to provide explicit justifications for their judgments. As a side note, I have a problem with Turiel’s prose: it’s dry and boring. But that’s my problem, I guess. (I know, this is supposed to be science, not literature).