“That’s not fair!” says the toddler. And she should know…

Photo by Augustus F. Sherman


Spend enough time with children and you’re sure to hear them blurt out a tearful, “That’s not fair!” And, as it turns out, children develop a sense of fairness before they can even speak in complete sentences. “We found that 19- and 21-month-old infants have a general expectation of fairness, and they can apply it appropriately to different situations,” says Stephanie Sloane, a psychology graduate student at the University of Illinois.

Sloane and her colleagues at UI and the University of Pennsylvania created unfair scenarios to see how infants would react. They found that “unfair” situations hold infants’ attention longer than fair ones do. The researchers suggest that the kids stare longer at unfair events unfolding before them because they’re watching something unexpected and odd.

For example, the researchers had infants watch as two women played with a pile of toys. Eventually, the experimenter asked the women to put the toys away and in the first scenario, one conscientious woman complies while the second one shirks her responsibility. In the second scenario, both women shared the responsibility for cleaning up.  The women were rewarded whether they helped clean up or not. In most cases, the infants gazed longer upon the unfair scenario.

Sloane explains, “We think children are born with a skeleton of general expectations about fairness.”

Keep this in mind the next time you try to steal candy from a baby. You may get away with it but the little tot will know you were in the wrong.

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Since 2005, Michael has been a librarian at National Geographic.