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Fall 2014

Share and Share Not Alike

The good news for parents and teachers is that kids, even very young kids, understand what’s fair. 

Bird, star, butterfly, heart images

The bad news — or at least the not-surprising news — is that despite this early understanding, young children don’t always follow along when it comes to sharing. Luckily, this starts to change as kids get older, around seven or eight. This is what Peter Blake, Ed.M.’04, Ed.D.’10, and Craig Smith, Ed.M.’03, Ed.D.’09, found after spending months asking hundreds of children to share and allocate coveted stickers by playing games at the Museum of Science in Boston. Blake, now an assistant professor at Boston University and director of its Social Development Learning Lab, and Smith, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at the University of Michigan, talked about their findings, which were recently published in PLOS ONE.

How many children took part?
PB: I estimate that I’ve tested about 2,000 children at the museum over the years.

How did the sticker experiment work?
CS: Some children were given four stickers and had a chance to actually share; these same children were also asked what they thought other children put in the same sharing task should do with the stickers. Other children were given four stickers and simply asked how much they themselves should share — a measure of the norms children applied to themselves. These same children were also asked to predict what another child had shared with them — a measure of potential pessimism about other children’s sharing. A final group was simply asked to predict how many of their four stickers they would share with another child if they were given a chance.

You found that age mattered, right?
CS: We knew from other research that children tend to get better at costly sharing — sharing that involves getting less for the self — as they get older. But not much was known about the factors that account for this age-related change. We were interested in testing a few ideas about what might fuel this developmental shift toward fairer sharing.

For example?
CS: We explored whether developmental improvements in inhibitory control, akin to impulse control, might explain age-related shifts. We also tested whether younger children were less likely to apply fairness standards to themselves. Neither of these factors explained age changes. However, we did find that older children were thinking more explicitly about fairness norms when faced with a costly sharing situation, whereas younger children seemed more preoccupied with their desires. A tentative conclusion we came to is that, although young children are indeed aware of fairness norms and see them as applying to the self, the weight these norms carry for children may increase as they get older.

Are parents surprised at their children’s choices with stickers?
PB: I see some funny interactions with parents when we have children allocate stickers or candy behind a privacy box and tell them that no one will know what they decide. Afterwards, parents will sometimes ask their child if they can see what they kept for themselves and children will say no! I’ve also seen three-year-olds happily declare that they kept everything for themselves.  

Read the full study.