Tag Archives: fairness

Ultimatum and dictator in four-year-olds

Lucas, M., Wagner, L., & Chow, C. (2008). Fair game: The intuitive economics of resource exchange in four-year olds. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, And, 2(3), 74–88. Retrieved from http://137.140.1.71/jsec/articles/volume2/issue3/JSEC2-3_Lucas.pdf

This is an interesting paper in an area that needs more research, namely, how children perform in economic games. The typical questions go as follows: Are children altruistic? Are they selfish?

The authors review and criticize some of the relevant previous research. Murnighan & Saxon (1998) found that kindergartners made larger ultimatum offers and accepted smaller ultimatum offers of candy than did third or sixth graders. However, Lucas et. al argue that Murnighan & Saxon’s results are probably not valid since they use a kind of simulated game, in which the child is asked to imagine that another child offers such and such amount of candy (instead of actually playing the ultimatum game). They also quote Harbaugh, Krause, & Liday (2003), who found that seven-year olds made and accepted smaller ultimatum proposals than adults; and Hill and Sally (2006), who found that 6-year-olds already make offers as fair as those of adults after repeated rounds of play. Benenson, Pascoe and Radmore (2007), on the other hand, found that very young children can be altruistic when playing dictator (4-year-olds donated, on average, 25% of a stake of ten stickers to another classmate).

The authors also mention a problem with some of the previous research: often, researchers make children play with tokens that have no inherent value; children are explained that they will be able to trade the tokens for other stuff later. Lucas et al. argue that researchers should use items with tangible, real value for children, such as candy, stickers or toys, since the use of “symbolic” tokens poses additional cognitive demands on children and might affect experimental results.

Lucas et al. found, in their own study, that children made, on average, offers of 4.7 stickers in the ultimatum game and 3.99 stickers in the dictator game. That is, children seem to be making quite fair offers.

It is well established that adults give an average of 40% of the money at stake in ultimatum. But there is a big difference between the 4-year-olds’ 47% and the adults’ 40%. In adults, the mode (i.e., the most frequent answer) is 50%, while some adults give 40%, 30% or less, and almost no one offers more than 50%. However, some of Lucas el al.’s 4-year-olds offer more than 50%.  They call this phenomenon hyperfair offers. There is a qualitative difference between adults and children: adults oscillate between the fair (“half and half”) and the strategic (“less than half”). Many children, by way of contrast, offer more than is fair, more than half the stake.

“(…) the percentage of hyperfair offers (…) increased from 18% in the dictator game to 33% in the ultimatum game. Adults, in contrast, almost never make hyperfair offers (only 3.5% of offers in Lucas, Et al., (2007) were hyperfair).”

Lucas et al. also report that, in their study, children did not seem to take into account the behavior of the other player in their responses, even if it was unfair. In the dictator game, children did not change the amount of their offer in response to receiving either a low or fair offer from the friend. Children’s offers for the second game were also not affected by whether the friend had accepted or rejected the child’s first offer.

The results of the dictator game suggest that children in the sample are quite altruistic: “The adult average offer of 20% of the stake in the dictator game (Camerer, 2003) is usually interpreted as evidence that individuals have preferences for altruism, since proposers could offer less in a dictator game without fear of rejection. With an average offer in the dictator game of 40% of the stake, our sample of children made more altruistic offers than adults.”

Children’s average offer of 4 stickers (or 40% of the stickers at stake) doubles adults’ typical offer of 20% of the money at stake in dictator, and does not seem to far away from the 47% children offered in the ultimatum game. How do Lucas et al. explain these data? “(Children’s) ability to perform a cost/benefit analysis was limited. They did not seem to appreciate the degree to which they could “shade” their offers without penalty.” Thus, Lucas et al. are assuming that children have the desire or goal of keeping as many stickers as possible but they that their strategic thinking is deficient. “Children were more generous than they needed to be and were limited in their ability to act strategically in bargaining games in order to maximize their own benefits while avoiding the costs of rejection.”

Lucas et al.’s conclusion: “children are quite altruistic”, “they may have an innate sense of fairness and altruism.” This result is, in my opinion, over-simplistic. Previous research in economic psychology has established that adults are altruistic and fair to some degree, but also a little bit selfish and strategic. Lucas et al. assume, therefore, that either children are born altruistic, fair and strategic or they learn these behaviors along the way. If research shows that children are completely selfish, then altruism is learned. If it shows they are altruistic from the start, then it must be innate.

I quote them: “We predicted that children would perform similarly to adults in showing preferences for fairness and altruism. Alternatively, and as some others have found, children could be less fair, indicating that fairness must be learned over the course of development.”

They start with a binary opposition between selfishness and altruism. In this approach, learning is seen as lineal, cumulative, unidirectional. They start with some innate concepts and, while learning, children simply absorb information from their milieu or copy adult models, until they reach the end-point.

There are other possibilities, however. For example: young children might be neither selfish nor altruistic. They might be following other types of reciprocity not related to the fair, contract-like, 50/50 reciprocity of adults. They might use an associative reciprocity of the kind “I give a lot of stickers to the other kid because I like to make friends” (see Faigenbaum, 2005), that are typical of children’s peer cultures and of exchanges within the family. Such an approach dispels the apparent inconsistencies of previous research: it’s not just that children are not yet able to think “strategically”. They are not even interested in this kind of reasoning.

Associative reciprocity might explain why kindergartners make large ultimatum offers and accepted small ultimatum offers of candy (Murnighan & Saxon, 1998) or why 4-year-olds can be so altruistic when playing dictator (Benenson, Pascoe and Radmore, 2007). It might also explain the results of Lucas et al.’s own research, for example, why children give 40% of the stake in the dictator game.

Some references

Faigenbaum, G. (2005). Children’s Economic Experience: Exchange. Buenos Aires: LibrosEnRed.

Harbaugh, W. T., Krause, K. S., & Liday, S. J. (2003). Bargaining by Children. Social Science Research Network, 1–40. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.436504

Lucas, M., Wagner, L., & Chow, C. (2008). Fair game: The intuitive economics of resource exchange in four-year olds. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, And, 2(3), 74–88. Retrieved from http://137.140.1.71/jsec/articles/volume2/issue3/JSEC2-3_Lucas.pdf

Murnighan, J. K., & Saxon, M. S. (1998). Ultimatum bargaining by children and adults. Journal of Economic Psychology, 19(4), 415–445. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0167-4870(98)00017-8

Warneken: Young children share the spoils after collaboration

Warneken, F., Lohse, K., Melis, A. P., & Tomasello, M. (2011). Young children share the spoils after collaboration. Psychological Science, 22(2), 267–73. http://doi.org/10.1177/0956797610395392

Interesting paper.

1) The authors postulate that the relationship between joint collaboration and sharing is crucial for understanding the origins of equality, both in ontogeny and phylogeny. Therefore, they investigate how children actively divide rewards after working for them in a collaborative problem-solving task.

Most studies on sharing involve windfall situations, in which resources are given to the children by a third party, with no work or effort involved. Moreover, many studies use a forced-choice paradigm with predefined allocation options, which does not allow for an assessment of how children themselves would actively negotiate over how to distribute resources with another person.

In contrast, Warneken et al.’s research is guided by the notion that people often have to work toward obtaining resources, and that they distribute those resources actively, rather than choosing individually between predefined options. Previous studies, they say, have not shown how children share resources in situations that might be the cradle of equality: actual joint collaborative activities with a social partner.

2) The experiment closely resembles sharing experiments with chimpanzees and other non-human primates. Warneken et al test children in dyads. Children have to perform a task together: they have to pull from both ends of a rope at the same time in order to bring a box close to them. In this way, they are able to get a reward (such as stickers or candy that have been placed in the box). In one condition, the box has two holes far apart, so that each child can get her reward without interference from the other participant. In a second (“clumped”) condition, the box has only one hole, and therefore only one child can access the rewards at a time.

3) Warneken et al. found that neither the reward type nor the opportunity to monopolize rewards in the clumped condition interfered with the children’s collaboration. 3 year-olds collaborate successfully in situations in which resources can be monopolized. The collaborative abilities of young children, compared with those of chimpanzees, are not constrained to the same extent by a tendency to monopolize resources.

Children predominately produced equal shares. They shared rewards equally most of the time, even when rewards could be monopolized more easily (clumped condition). At an age when children are just beginning to skillfully collaborate with peers, they already engage in sharing behavior that results in equitable outcomes.

4) What does it all mean? Competition over resources, the authors claim, is mitigated in human children (when compared with chimpanzees and other primates) by an emerging sense of equal sharing of the spoils, which enables successful collaboration even early in ontogeny. Thus, the authors claim that this study supports a Tomasello-like evolutionary hypothesis, according to which the emergence of cooperation is due not only to cognitive and behavioral skills, but also to a reduction in competition over resources. Competition over resources is mitigated in human children by an emerging sense of equal sharing of the spoils, which enables successful collaboration even early in ontogeny.

5) According to this study, children are capable of equitable distributions a very early age. Although many studies place the origins of equality at around 5, 6 or even 7 years of age, it all depends on how the concrete distribution problem is presented to the children. Warneken et al. present children with a collaborative, non-competitive situation. In addition, in this study the peer is present; the dyad works together in a problem solving activity (compare this with economic games that are played by a single present individual and an absent, anonymous, “invisible”). Even more, some of the dyads comprise children who know each other well, since they attend the same day-care center (they are not one-shot interactions, as in most economic games). All this seems to help even 3 year-olds to produce equitable outcomes early in development. The authors reach the conclusion that, perhaps, children learn to acknowledge each other’s right to gain equal resources in situations in which they collaborate to produce a mutually beneficial outcome that one person acting alone would not be able to achieve (this result is not proven by the experiment, in my opinion).

Egalistarism and parochialism in young children

Fehr, E., Bernhard, H., & Rockenbach, B. (2008). Egalitarianism in young children. Nature, 454(7208), 1079–1083. http://doi.org/10.1038/nature07155

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.”

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.”

Summary of my presentation at the fairness conference

I like the summary Erin Robbins and Philippe Rochat wrote for my presentation at the Fairness Conference (Emory University, 2012). It really captures the spirit of what I was trying to convey. It goes as follows:

Gustavo Faigenbaum from the University Autonoma de Entre Rios in Argentina (“Three Dimensions of Fairness”), in contrast to the preceding two evolutionary perspectives, argues that in understanding fairness, individual morality has been overrated and institutions underrated. To this end, Faigenbaum advances several claims that draw from both psychological and philosophical theories. First, he argues that institutional experience shapes concepts of fairness. This is evident in children’s interactions in schoolyards, where they engage in associative reciprocity (sharing with others to build alliances and demonstrate social affinities) rather than strict reciprocity. At the level of adult behavior, this associative reciprocity is also evident in gift-giving rituals. Second, Faigenbaum argues that possession and ownership are the most important institutions in the development of fairness reasoning because they involve abstraction and are the first step in the development of a deontological perspective.

Concepts of morality do not need to be evoked; he argues that research on children’s protests of ownership violations reflect an emphasis on conventional rather than moral rules. Faigenbaum concludes by arguing that participation in rule-governed activities is sufficient to create mutual understandings about what constitutes fair exchange (per philosopher John Searle’s “X counts as Y” rule). Developmental research demonstrates that fairness is an autonomous domain of experience that is fundamentally tied to institutions and cannot be reduced to moral reasoning proper.

The complete presentation is available at youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZcLicg_Dw8) yet the sound is terrible and it’s practically impossible to listen to.