Do Babies Know What’s Fair?

By Bernie Wong | March 20, 2012 | 0 comments

A new study suggests they do, even before they’re two years old.

Is morality something we’re born with, or something we learn? Psychologists have found that kids have a sense of fairness by the time they start pre-school, when they’re three or four years old. And within the past few years, a small but growing body of research indicates that kids have a moral compass while they’re just toddlers, suggesting that fairness might be innate.

A new study, published in Psychological Science, explored this question through two separate experiments. In one experiment, 19 month olds watched someone divide toys between two giraffe puppets. In some cases, each giraffe received a single toy—a fair condition—while in others, one giraffe received both toys and the other giraffe received none—an unfair condition.

Marina Dyakonova

The researchers observed how long the kids would stare at the puppets afterwards. Prior research indicates that infants and toddlers will stare longer at a person or event that they find surprising or out of the ordinary.

In this experiment, the 19 month olds stared longer at the giraffes after seeing the unfair division of toys, suggesting that the sequence of events had violated their pre-existing expectation for fairness, prompting further scrutiny.

In a second experiment, the researchers had 21 month olds observe two human actors playing with toy blocks. An experimenter then entered the room, telling the two actors they’d receive a sticker if they put away their toys. In some cases, both actors cleaned up and both received a sticker upon the experimenter’s return—a fair condition. In other cases, however, one actor continued to play and never cleaned up, but still received a sticker—an unfair condition.

The toddlers stared longer at the unfair condition, suggesting that they not only have a basic sense of fairness but also an expectation that those who do work should be rewarded, while those who don’t help shouldn’t earn those rewards.

In a variation on this experiment, the experimenter didn’t first tell the actors they would receive a sticker for cleaning; he or she just gave out the stickers at the end, fairly or unfairly. Even in this version, the kids still looked longer at the actors after the rewards were unfair.

The researchers offer two possible explanations for their results: Either kids as young as 19 months old have a deep concern for fairness, perhaps one that’s “innate and universal,” or from observing the world around them, they’ve learned important social rules about how rewards should be distributed.

“Whichever possibility turns out to be correct,” they write, “the present findings indicate that infants in the second year of life already have rich and subtle expectations about how individuals should distribute resources and rewards to others.”

Tracker Pixel for Entry

Greater Good wants to know:
Do you think this article will influence your opinions or behavior?

  • Very Likely

  • Likely

  • Unlikely

  • Very Unlikely

  • Not sure

About The Author

Bernie Wong is a Greater Good research assistant.


Like this article?

Here's what you can do:

blog comments powered by Disqus



Greater Good Events

The Greater Good Science Center Summer Institute for Educators 2017
Clark Kerr Campus, UC-Berkeley
Sunday, June 25 - Friday, June 30, 2017 OR Sunday, July 16 - Friday, July 21, 2017

The GGSC’s six-day Summer Institute equips education professionals with prosocial learning strategies, tools and processes that benefit both students and teachers.


Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!


Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.


Greater Good Resources


Book of the Week

How Pleasure Works By Paul Bloom Bloom explores a broad range of human pleasures from food to sex to religion to music. Bloom argues that human pleasure is not purely an instinctive, superficial, sensory reaction; it has a hidden depth and complexity.

Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement