Give Them A Fair Shake

Give them a fair shake is a concept that most of us would publicly claim to espouse. We are currently hearing “fairness” frequently at present in regard to tax rates and payment.

When we are not handed fair reward or portion we get ticked off. Non-human primates do also. They expect us to give them a fair shake. Our kids are sharp observers and we are in trouble if we present one sibling with a better deal than their fellow. The household may be in uproar for days.

When socializing our kids in playgroups when young we stress the concepts of sharing and fairness. Well most of us do. The received wisdom is that once they understand fairness, they can begin to wrestle with the more abstract and subtle concept of merit.

Reward relative to merit is one ideal that some in society would claim to be the goal. Very rarely do we truly see that ideal approached, let alone achieved. Why? Philosophers could still write tomes on the subject, but psychologists might be a better source for information.

So we come to an interesting question. How young are children when they can put the concept together? Kanngiesser and Warneken have started experimenting with groups of three and five-year olds (1). The children had to pair up with a large puppet and collect coins from a group of six coins by fishing for them with a rod and line. No difficult fly fishing techniques were required. The human participant had to award pretty stickers to themselves and their puppet friend.

Firstly the award was based on size of the catch. When they worked harder and caught more coins, both the three and five year olds awarded more stickers to themselves than when their puppet friend put in more effort and was more successful. But what about the division of the available stickers? Did they look at their puppet friend and give them a fair shake? Not really. They kept more than half the stickers when they got the bigger coin catch, which was fair, but when their p-friend did better, only a small proportion of the kids handed over more than half the prized stickers. Note that 3-year olds were more likely to give them a fair shake than 5-year olds.

So it seems that by 3-years old our kids are beginning to understand what a meritocracy should look like. But even at 3 and more so at 5-years old the green-eyed monster is playing a significant role. I guess our future supply of investment bankers and industrial oligarchs is assured and our tax policy of “to him that hath, shall be given…” will continue to hold sway.


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