Sunday, September 14, 2008
Children develop into (parochial) egalitarians, at least according to a recent study by Ernst Fehr, Helen Bernhard and Bettina Rockenbach. Children start out as selfish homo economicus style agents and turn into inequality averse parochialists. But the problem is that these aren't just any children, they are Swiss children and the cultural relevance of being Swiss has been seen in Ernst Fehr's own labs...
The experiments on which the paper was based were run with children ranging from 3 to 8 years of age where children would choose allocations of jellytots, smarties or fizzers for themselves and a partner. There partner could be from their kindergarten or playschool (in-group), or from another (out-group). There were three treatments in the experiments.
- 'Prosocial Treatment' choosing between a (1,1) and a (1,0) allocation.
- 'Envy Treatment' choosing between a (1, 1) and a (1,2) allocation.
- 'Sharing Treatment' choosing between a (1,1) and a (2,0) allocation.
In terms of parochialism (or in-group vs, out-group motives) there was significant evidence to indicate that the children favoured in-group members, as the authors comment: "The egalitarian choice is 15-20% more likely in the prosocial game if the partner is an in-group member" (1081). Moreover, parochialism seems to develop concurrent with egalitarian motives, as the favouring of in-group members was much greater amongst the 7-8 year olds than for the younger participants.
The authors also note an interesting gender disparity with boys seeming to be more parochially inclined than girls were, quoting again, "boys seem to be much less averse against disadvantageous inequality if the partner is an ingroup member [...] In contrast, girls do not differentiate in their choices between ingroup and outgroup partners" (1081). This seems to be in line with modeling that considers the coevolution of altruism and parochialism, with men going to war against the outgroup and possible selection for in-group favouring males being active.
The authors also make some attempts at interpreting 'birth order' and 'only child' effects. The evidence indicating that only children are more likely to share than others and that youngest children in sets of siblings are less likely to share than others. They also make some comparisons of the evidence they have with evidence from chimps and marmosets, the implications of which I am not going to consider here.
What, for me, is a crucial flaw in the 'child egalitarianism' that they propose is that it is probably in no way as universal as they make it sound to be. This is a nuanced point. They don't state outright that their theory universalizes to most of humanity, but it seems to be tacit in their phrasing. Why is this a problem for me? Well, the sample is entirely made up of Swiss children. According to studies by a co-author of Fehr's, Simon Gaechter (along with Benedikt Herrmann and Christian Thoni), altruistic punishment is culturally conditioned and anti-social punishment seems to be a prevalent worldwide adult phenomenon (I blogged on the impacts of the Herrmann, Thoni & Gaechter paper here and here). In fact, in the Herrmann, Thoni and Gaechter paper the Swiss sample of individuals were among the most likely to act prosocially in the worldwide sample (actually and anecdotally, one of the reasons for the research in the first place was that the Swiss seemed abnormally cooperative to the authors relative to others). This is bound to affect the ways in which children in Swiss society are socialised.
The only deference Fehr et al. are willing to give this concept is captured in the single sentence: "The children probably acquire some of the normative rules of the society which surrounds them during the age period on which we focused" (1082). So they admit that children can be socialised, and that theirs might be, but they don't discuss the ways in which this could jeopardize the generalisation of their theory. Obviously, the problem is that we cannot know whether the tendencies towards inequality aversion and parochialism that they discuss are universal and genetically driven unless studies are undertaken that use cross-country and cross-cultural comparisons with children so that we can capture cultural differences versus inherent dispositions.
Notwithstanding this criticism, I believe strongly that this paper takes a step in the right direction. As much as the Herrmann, Thoni and Gaechter work originated in the labs in Switzerland and from their went on to test prosociality worldwide, this work could also go in that direction to test the origins of prosociality (antisociality) and parochialism.
Ernst Fehr, Helen Bernhard, Bettina Rockenbach (2008). Egalitarianism in young children Nature, 454 (7208), 1079-1083 DOI: 10.1038/nature07155
B. Herrmann, C. Thoni, S. Gachter (2008). Antisocial Punishment Across Societies Science, 319 (5868), 1362-1367 DOI: 10.1126/science.1153808