Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Gauging Fairness


Considerations about fairness fundamentally affect human behavior, but our understanding of the nature and development of people's fairness preferences is limited, in part because people often disagree on what is fair. For example, most adults believe that differences in individual achievements can justify unequal distributions of income, but they disagree on whether inequalities reflecting luck or efficiency considerations are fair or not. In a Report in the 28 May 2010 Science, Almås et al. used an economic exchange game to study how views of fairness and inequality develop during adolescence. The team tested Norwegian students from 5th grade to 13th grade and found that 5th graders expressed a preference for equal division of rewards, whereas 13th graders tolerated unequal outcomes, as long as they had been provided with evidence of unequal inputs. That is, the younger children were strict egalitarians, but the older ones tended toward meritocracy. The researchers suggest that more exposure to various achievement-based social activities, like sports, could be one of the reasons why older children shift toward a more merit-based stance. A related podcast segment featuring lead author Ingvild Almås discussed the work.

To illustrate how efficiency and individual achievements may justify an unequal distribution of resources, consider two children, Anne and Carla, who discuss how to divide a cake. Anne appeals to efficiency when she argues that total benefits are maximized by giving her the largest share because she enjoys cake the most. Carla appeals to individual achievements when she argues that she should have the largest share because her contribution to making the cake was the largest. The legitimacy of these, and other, fairness considerations has been extensively discussed in the philosophical literature, and such considerations are important for how people make decisions in a wide range of situations. For example, in the workplace, some may find it fair that a more productive colleague has a higher wage, and, in allocating public funds, some may find it fair to pay some attention to which projects produce the greatest total benefits for the population.

Disagreements over questions of fair distribution are fundamental in human life, and to get a better understanding of the sources of such disagreements, it is important to study how fairness views develop in childhood. The development of children’s fairness views has been extensively studied in the psychological literature and also, more recently, in the economic literature. It has been shown that, with age, young children tend to become less selfish in their reasoning and choices, whereas the evidence for adolescents is more mixed. Furthermore, with age, children tend to move from a strict egalitarian view toward fairness views taking into account individual contributions and circumstances.

'Gauging Fairness', SCIENCE (28 May 2010)


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