Report By age 3, kids know when you owe them one


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If we’re being honest, most of us would admit that we keep an ongoing mental record of who has done what for whom among our relationships. It sounds a little churlish but this note-keeping is a basic aspect of social functioning that means we can avoid being taken advantage of by free riders, and also helps us decide who to turn to when we’re in need.

When does this sense of social fairness emerge? Developmental psychologists have previously demonstrated that pre-schoolers have a keen sense of reciprocity – for example, they will share more toys with other kids who have previously shared more with them. A new study in Developmental Psychology has flipped this around, showing that already by age three years, children also recognise when others are indebted to them.

Markus Paulus at Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich recruited around 40 three-year-olds and five-year-olds to play a sharing game with two toy animals. Over three rounds, the children, who were tested alone, had to choose how many stickers to share with each animal. Crucially, Paulus fixed things so that the kids’ choice for one animal was to share either two or three out of six stickers each round, whereas their choice for the other disadvantaged animal was to share either one or no stickers out of two. This obviously ensured that over the three rounds, the child had shared more stickers with one of the animals than the other.

Next, and this was important to rule out other explanations for the results, Paulus showed the children that the animals also had their own sticker collection. In fact the quantity of their own stickers meant that combined with the ones from the child, each animal now had exactly the same number of stickers. This ensured that the children’s later behaviour wasn’t influenced by perceiving one animal to be wealthier than the other in terms of sticker ownership.

Read more here. (Digest BPS)
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