Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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American Association for the Advancement of Science

What exactly is 'fair'?

As part of a research study in experimental economics at NHH in Norway, 500 school children had to work and then decide how to share their earnings. The experiment studied both their willingness to share fairly and their perception of what is a fair distribution of income.
Image courtesy of Knut Egil Wang

A new study suggests that young children are content to divide money up equally among members of a group, but as those children get older, their sense of fairness changes—and they start thinking that the people who do the most work should get the most money. Researchers say that more exposure to achievement-based activities, like sports, might be one of the reasons why the older children develop these ideas that rewards should be based upon merit.

In order to reach these conclusions, Ingvild Almås and colleagues made some changes to a well-known economic exchange game, and observed how a large group of fifth- to 13th-grade students decided to share money with their team members.

With this money-exchange game, the researchers were able to gauge the students' concepts of fairness. They found that the majority of fifth graders were strict egalitarians, meaning they would share the money equally, but that older students considered individual achievement much more important when it came to dividing up their wealth.

The researchers say that most adults also believe that differences in work can justify unequal distributions of money—but that adults disagree on whether matters of luck are fair or not.

Taken together, Almås and her colleagues' findings demonstrate that, as children get older, they seem to place more importance on peoples' actual work—but not their luck—when it comes to pay day. This research appears in the 28 May 2010 issue of Science.