Babies as young as 15 months can grasp fairness: Study

Last Updated: Nov 09, 2011, 08:53 AM IST

Washington: Even at 15 months, when they are just beginning to grasp language, babies can understand the concepts of sharing and fairness, finds a new study.

Researchers the University of Washington also found that infants do have different sharing "personalities," with some being shocked by unfairness and others by equal sharing.

"These norms of fairness and altruism are more rapidly acquired than we thought," study author Jessica Sommerville was quoted as saying by LiveScience.

"These results also show a connection between fairness and altruism in infants, such that babies who were more sensitive to the fair distribution of food were also more likely to share their preferred toy."

Past studies have revealed that two-year-olds can help others -- considered a measure of altruism -- and at around age six or seven, they begin to display a sense of fairness.

To see when these sharing and fairness traits first begin to appear, the researchers showed 47 babies videos of an adult dividing crackers or milk between two other adults.

The researchers watched the babies` reactions to the videos for what`s called a "violation of expectancy" – when babies are surprised by something, they tend to stare longer at it.

On average, the babies watched the videos with the unequal sharing more intently, but some were more surprised than others.

The team also tested infants` willingness to share by presenting them with two toys and asking them to choose one.

A researcher approached the infant and asked, "Can I have one?" A third of the infants passed the researcher the toy they had chosen and a third passed the second toy. The rest didn`t pass over any toy, which could mean they were unwilling to share, were nervous around a stranger, or didn`t understand the task, the researchers reported in the journal PLoS ONE.

When the researchers compared the sharing results with the video-watching results, they found that the babies fell into one of three categories.

The majority (92 per cent) of babies who shared their preferred toy were also the ones who were shocked by unfairness in the videos and were named "altruistic sharers."

Of the infants who shared their least favourite toy, 86 percent were also shocked by equal sharing in the video, called "selfish sharers".

"The altruistic sharers were really sensitive to the violation of fairness in the food task," Sommerville said.

Fairness seems as though it might even be built into our brains; research published in the journal Nature in 2010 showed that our brain centers react to unfair allocation of monetary rewards.

Though fairness may be ingrained in even the youngest of infants, our ideas of fairness seem to change as we age.

Another study, published in the journal Science in 2010, found that young children seem to like all things to be equal, but older adolescents are more likely to consider merit when it comes to dividing up the wealth. It could be due to brain changes and adaptation to social experiences.

PTI