Fair distribution in early childhood: Stuck between friends and needy strangers

Abstract views: 234 / PDF downloads: 99





Resource distribution, Need, Friendship, Fairness, Distributional justice, Prosocial behavior, Favoritism


Children distribute resources to recipients differentially regarding various factors such as ‘need’ or ‘friendship’ (social closeness). The aim of this study is to examine the interaction between these two variables by presenting children with two recipients who are a friend and a stranger varying on the number of materials they need. A distribution task with four different scenarios (conditions) was applied to 25 children (Mage =62.16, 15 males) aged 4-6 years. Across scenarios of four experimental conditions, the amount of needed materials was manipulated between the friend and the stranger. The participants were asked to distribute resources to the recipients in each experimental session. Allocation of all resources to the needy recipient to eliminate the need in the expense of the friend meant ‘fair’ distribution; while the allocation of all resources to the friend meant ‘friend-favoring’. The results showed an interaction between ‘need’ and ‘friendship’ for their roles in allocation decisions. Children favored the friend when their friend is needier than the stranger and transferred the greatest amount of resources to the needy friend. In the condition that the stranger is needier, levels of friend-favoring decrease. The results indicated that preschool children have a tendency for favoritism but this preference weakens in presence of a needier stranger. Taken together, the findings suggest that children are capable of taking the two competing factors of friendship and neediness into consideration at a time and able to adjust their allocation to meet the needs of not only friends but also strangers. Preschool children’s preference to support fairness occurs together with their developing helping behavior and moral reasoning as well.


Asher, S. R., Singleton, L. C., Tinsley, B. R., & Hymel, S. (1979). A reliable sociometric measure for preschool children. Developmental Psychology, 15(4), 443-444. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.15.4.443

Baillargeon, R., Setoh, P., Sloane, S., Jin, K., & Bian, L. (2014). Infant social cognition: Psychological and sociomoral reasoning. In M. S. Gazzaniga & G. R. Mangun (Eds.), The cognitive neurosciences(Vol. 5,pp.7-14), MIT Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7551/mitpress/9504.003.0005

Benenson, J. F., Pascoe, J., & Radmore, N. (2007). Children's altruistic behavior in the dictator game. Evolution and Human Behavior, 28(3), 168-175. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2006.10.003

Benozio, A., & Diesendruck, G. (2015). Parochialism in preschool boys' resource allocation, Evolution and Human Behavior, 36(4), 256-264. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2014.12.002

Bronfenbrenner, U. (2005). Making human beings human: Bioecological perspectives on human development. Sage.

Chernyak, N., Harris, P. L., & Cordes, S. (2022). A counting intervention promotes fair sharing in preschoolers. Child Development. 93(5), 1365-1379. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13775

Chernyak, N., Sandham, B., Harris, P. L., & Cordes, S. (2016). Numerical cognition explains age-related changes in third-party fairness. Developmental Psychology, 52(10), 1555-1562. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000196

Chernyak, N., Trieu, B. Y., & Kushnir, T. (2017). Preschoolers' selfish sharing is reduced by prior experience with proportional generosity. Open Mind, 1(1), 42–52. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1162/OPMI_a_00004

Corradi-Dell’Acqua, C., Tusche, A., Vuilleumier, P. & Singer, T. (2016). Cross-modal representations of first-hand and vicarious pain, disgust and fairness in insular and cingulate cortex. Nature Communications, 7(1),1-12. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms10904

Cowell, J. M., Lee, K., Malcolm‐Smith, S., Selcuk, B., Zhou, X., & Decety, J. (2017). The development of generosity and moral cognition across five cultures. Developmental Science, 20(4), e12403. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12403

Dawes, C. T., Fowler, J. H., Johnson, T., McElreath, R., & Smirnov, O. (2007). Egalitarian motives in humans. Nature, 446(7137), 794-796. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/nature05651

Decety, J., & Yoder, K. J. (2017). The emerging social neuroscience of justice motivation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21(1), 6-14. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2016.10.008

Deutsch, M. (1975). Equity, equality, and need: What determines which value will be used as the basis of distributive justice?,Journal of Social Issues,31(3), 137-149. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1975.tb01000.x

Eisenberg, N. & Mussen, P. H. (1989). The roots of prosocial behavior in children. Cambridge University Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511571121

Eisenberg, N. (1989). The development of prosocial values. In N. Eisenberg, J. Reykowski, & E. Staub (Eds.) Social and moral values: Individual and societal perspectives (pp. 87-103). Routledge.

Eisenberg, N., & Miller, P.A. (1987). The relation of empathy to prosocial and related behaviors. Psychological Bulletin, 101(1), 91–119. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.101.1.91

Elenbaas, L., Rizzo, M. T., Cooley, S., & Killen, M. (2016). Rectifying social inequalities in a resource allocation task. Cognition,155, 176–187. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2016.07.002

Essler, S., Lepach A.C., Petermann, F., & Paulus, M. (2019). Equality, equity, or inequality duplication? How preschoolers distribute necessary and luxury resources between rich and poor others. Social Development, 29(1), 110-125. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/sode.12390

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

Gülay, H. (2008). Standatization of a scale for measuring peer relations among 5-6 years old children and studying the relations between some familial variables and peer relations of children at this age. [Doctoral Dissertation] Marmara University.

House, B., Henrich, J., Sarnecka, B., & Silk, J. B. (2013). The development of contingent reciprocity in children. Evolution and Human Behavior, 34(2), 86-93. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2012.10.001

Huppert, E., Cowell, J. M., Cheng, Y., Contreras‐Ibáñez, C., Gomez‐Sicard, N., Gonzalez‐Gadea, M. L., Huepe, D., Ibanez, A., Lee K., Mahasneh, R., Malcolm-Smith, S., Salas, N., Selcuk, B., Tugodden, B., Wong, A., Zhou, X., & Decety, J. (2019). The development of children's preferences for equality and equity across 13 individualistic and collectivist cultures. Developmental Science, 22(2), e12729. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12729

Imuta, K., Henry, J.D., Slaughter, V., Selcuk, B., & Ruffman, T. (2016). Theory of mind and prosocial behavior in childhood: A meta-analytic review. Developmental Psychology, 52(8), 1192–1205. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000140

Ísaksson, A. (1979). Kohlberg's theory of moral development and its relevance to education. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 23(2), 47-63. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/0031383790230202

Killen, M., & Smetana, J. G. (2015). Origins and development of morality. In M. E. Lamb,& R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology and developmental science: Socioemotional processes (Vol 7, pp. 701–749). Wiley. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118963418.childpsy317

Kohlberg, L., & Hersh, R. H. (1977). Moral development: A review of the theory. Theory Into Practice, 16(2), 53-59. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/00405847709542675

Lawrence Erlbaum.Eisenberg, N., & Fabes, R. A., & Spinrad, T. L. (1998). Prosocial development. In Damon, W., Lerner, R. M., & Eisenberg, N. (Eds.) Handbook of child psychology, social, emotional, and personality development (pp. 646-718-778). John Wiley & Sons.

Lee, K. J. J., Esposito, G., & Setoh, P. (2018). Preschoolers favor their ingroup when resources are limited. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1752. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01752

Li, V., Spitzer, B., & Olson, K. R. (2014). Preschoolers reduce inequality while favoring individuals with more. Child Development, 85(3), 1123–1133. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12198

Linden-Andersen, S., Markiewicz, D., & Doyle, A.B. (2009). Perceived similarity among adolescent friends: The role of reciprocity, friendship quality, and gender. Journal of Early Adolescence, 29(5), 617-637. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0272431608324372

McAuliffe, K., Blake, P.R., Steinbeis, N., & Warneken, F. (2017). The developmental foundations of human fairness. Nature Human Behavior, 1, 0042. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-016-0042

McCandless, B. R., & Marshall, H. R. (1957). A picture sociometric technique for preschool children and its relation to teacher judgments of friendship. Child Development, 28(2), 139–147. DOI: https://doi.org/10.2307/1125876

Messer, E.J.E., Burgess, V., Sinclair, M., Grant, S., Spencer, D., & McGuigan, N. (2017). Young children display an increase in prosocial donating in response to an upwards shift in generosity by a same-aged peer. Nature Scientific Reports, 7, 2633. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-02858-y

Moore, C. (2009). Fairness in children’s resource allocation depends on the recipient. Psychological Science, 20(8), 944-948. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02378.x

Moreno, J.L. (1963). Who shall survive. Istanbul University Publishing House.

Olson, K. R., & Spelke, E. S. (2008). Foundations of cooperation in young children. Cognition, 108(1), 222–231. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2007.12.003

Padilla-Walker, L. M., & Carlo, G. (2014). The study of prosocial behavior. In L.M. Padilla-Walker & G. Carlo (Eds.), Prosocial development: A multidimensional approach(pp. 3-17). Oxford University Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199964772.003.0001

Paulus, M. & Moore, C. (2015). Preschool children’s anticipation of recipients’ emotions affects their resource allocation. Social Development, 24(4) 852-867. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/sode.12126

Paulus, M. (2014). The early origins of human charity: Developmental changes in preschoolers’ sharing with poor and wealthy individuals. Frontiers in Psychology, 5(344), 1-9. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00344

Paulus, M. (2016). Friendship trumps neediness: The impact of social relations and others’ wealth on preschool children’s sharing. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 146, 106-120. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2016.02.001

Paulus, M., & Essler, S. (2020). Why do preschoolers perpetuate inequalities? Theoretical perspectives on inequity preferences in the face of emerging concerns for equality. Developmental Review, 58, 1-13. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2020.100933

Paulus, M., & Moore, C. (2014). The development of recipient-dependent sharing behavior and sharing expectations in preschool children. Developmental Psychology, 50(3), 914-921. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1037/a0034169

Piaget, J. (1932). The moral judgment of the child. Routledge Kegan Paul.

Piff, P. K., Kraus, M. W., & Keltner, D. (2018). Unpacking the inequality paradox: The psychological roots of inequality and social class. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 57, 53-124. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.aesp.2017.10.002

Prencipe, A., & Zelazo, P.D. (2005). Development of affective decision making for self and other: Evidence for the integration of first and third-person perspectives. Psychological Science, 16(7), 501-505. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.01564.x

Rizzo, M. T., & Killen, M. (2016). Children’s understanding of equity in the context of inequality. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 34(4), 569-581. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/bjdp.12150

Rizzo, M. T., Elenbaas, L., Cooley, S., & Killen, M. (2016). Children's recognition of fairness and others' welfare in a resource allocation task: Age related changes. Developmental Psychology, 52(8), 1307–1317. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000134

Roberts, S. O., Guo, C., Ho, A. K., & Gelman, S. A. (2018). Children's descriptive-to-prescriptive tendency replicates (and varies) cross‐culturally: Evidence from China. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 165, 148–160. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2017.03.018

Rochat, P., Dias, M. D., Liping, G., Broesch, T., Passos-Ferreira, C., Winning, A., & Berg, B. (2009). Fairness in distributive justice by 3-and 5-year-olds across seven cultures. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 40(3), 416-442. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0022022109332844

Sanfey, A. G., Rilling, J. K., Aronson, J. A., Nystrom, L. E., & Cohen, J. D. (2003). The neural basis of economic decision-making in the Ultimatum Game. Science, 300(5626), 1755–1758. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1082976

Schmidt, M. F. H., & Sommerville, J. A. (2011). Fairness expectations and altruistic sharing in 15-month-old human infants. PLoS ONE, 6(10), e23223. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0023223

Schmidt, M., Svetlova, M., Johe, J., & Tomasello, M. (2016). Children’s developing understanding of legitimate reasons for allocating resources unequally. Cognitive Development, 37, 42–52. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogdev.2015.11.001

Schneider, R. M., Brockbank, E., Feiman, R., & Barner, D. (2022). Counting and the ontogenetic origins of exact equality. Cognition, 218, 104952. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2021.104952

Shaw, A. (2013). Beyond “to share or not to share”: The impartiality account of fairness. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(5), 413-417. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721413484467

Sloane, S., Baillargeon, R., & Premack, D. (2012). Do infants have a sense of fairness?. Psychological Science, 23(2), 196-204. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797611422072

Smith, C. E., Blake, P. R. & Harris, P. L. (2013). I should but I won’t: Why young children endorse norms of fair sharing but do not follow them. PLoS ONE, 8(3), e59510. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0059510

Sommerville, J. A. (2015). The emergence of moral character in infancy: Developmental changes and individual differences in fairness concerns and prosocial behavior during the first two years of life. In C.B. Miller, R. M. Furr, A. Knobel, & W. Fleeson (Eds.). Character: New directions from philosophy, psychology, and theology (pp. 445-466). Oxford University Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190204600.003.0021

Sommerville, J. A. (2022). Developing an early awareness of fairness. In M. Killen & J.G. Smetana (Eds.) Handbook of moral development (pp. 153-167). Routledge. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003047247-13

Starmans, C., Sheskin, M., & Bloom, P. (2017). Why people prefer unequal societies. Nature Human Behaviour, 1, 0082. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-017-0082

Svetlova, M., Nichols, S., & Brownell, C. (2010). Toddlers’ prosocial behavior: From instrumental to empathic to altruistic helping. ChildDevelopment, 81(6), 1814–1827. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01512.x

Takagishi, H., Kameshima, S., Schug, J., Koizumi, M. & Yamagishi, T. (2010). Theory of mind enhances preference for fairness. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 105(1-2), 130-137. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2009.09.005

Thompson, C., Barresi, J., & Moore, C. (1997). The development of future-oriented prudence and altruism in preschoolers. Cognitive Development, 12(2), 199-212. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0885-2014(97)90013-7

Tomasello, M. (2018). A natural history of human morality. Harvard University Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/09515089.2018.1486605

Trommsdorff, G., Friedmeier, W., & Mayer, B. (2007). Sympathy, distress, and prosocial behavior of preschool children in four cultures. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 31(3), 284–293. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0165025407076441

Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2007). Helping and cooperation at 14 months of age. Infancy, 11(3), 271–294. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1532-7078.2007.tb00227.x

Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2009). Varieties of altruism in children and chimpanzees. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(9), 397-402. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2009.06.008

Weller, D., & Hansen-Lagattuta, K. (2013). Helping the in‐group feels better: Children’s judgments and emotion attributions in response to prosocial dilemmas. Child Development, 84(1), 253-268. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01837.x

Wellman, H. M., Cross, D., & Watson, J. (2001). Meta‐analysis of theory‐of‐mind development: The truth about false belief. Child Development, 72(3), 655-684. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8624.00304

Xiao, X., Liu, L., Xu, L., Liu, L., Chen, C., & Li, Y. (2019). Group bias in children’s merit-based resource allocation.Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 188, 1-15. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2019.06.013




How to Cite

Kaya, G. N. (2023). Fair distribution in early childhood: Stuck between friends and needy strangers. Journal of Childhood, Education & Society, 4(2), 124–141. https://doi.org/10.37291/2717638X.202342210