A recent study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, shows that babies as young as 15 months can already grasp and practice the idea of fairness and sharing. They were also found to be able to identify instances of unfair treatment, associated with a willingness to share. The babies were also found to have various sharing “personalities.”
Says Jessica Sommerville, leader of the study and associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington, “Our findings show that these norms of fairness and altruism are more rapidly acquired than we thought.” Aside from this, the study also revealed that babies are able to associate fairness to altruism. Those babies who were more sensitive to the fair distribution of food were also more likely to share their preferred toy.
The study, which was performed in two phases, involved first showing 47 15-month-old babies a video with their parents. Two people were handed crackers to eat. They were first given the same amount of crackers. On the second time, one person received more crackers than the other.
How did the researchers determine if the babies were reacting negatively to either of the two scenarios? Using the “violation of expectancy”, which is when a baby becomes surprised with a stimulus and they tend to stare at the object longer than usual. The babies were found to stare at scenario 2, with the unequal distribution, more intently. Said Sommerville, "The infants expected an equal and fair distribution of food, and they were surprised to see one person given more crackers or milk than the other."
In order to ascertain the same babies’ willingness to share, the researchers made the babies choose between two toys; namely a LEGO block and a more elaborately designed LEGO doll. An adult would then ask the baby if he could have one of the toys, and 1/3 of the babies shared their preferred toy and another third shared their non-preferred toy. The remaining third were hesitant to share any toy, which could be because they were nervous, they were uncomfortable around the stranger, they didn’t understand, or they didn’t want to share.