One for you, one for me…

Sharing things on an equal basis is something that children seem to do from early on, and innumerous studies have found that by the time they enter school, children already show a strong preference for fair distributions. However, the vast majority of this research has been done in WEIRD places – Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic countries. But what about the rest of the world?

Indeed, recent work has shown that children from different cultures have rather different ways of sharing stickers, sweets, or other valuable items. Although the development from more self-centered to increasingly fair behavior appears to be universal, notions of what constitutes fairness seem to be shaped by the specific norms and values of the children’s cultural environment.

Following up on these findings, we wanted to know whether similar variation exists in a related dilemma: sharing a resource that is only accessible to one individual at a time. Would children from different cultures solve the problem by taking turns?

In order to find out, we looked at children from three very different cultural settings: a typical Western society (Germany), pastoralists living in the sparsely populated, arid plains of northern Kenya (Samburu), and small-scale farmers from rural areas in central Kenya (Kikuyu).

In our first study, pairs of 5- to 10-year old children got to retrieve small rewards using a fishing hook. Since there was only one hook available, the user had the chance to monopolize it and get all of the rewards – or agree to take turns and accept getting less.

Children from rural areas in central Kenya (Kikuyu).

None of the Kenyan pairs distributed their rewards evenly

Most German children took turns immediately, while both Kenyan groups hardly ever took turns within the first round at all. Consequently, the number of rewards obtained by each of the two players was highly equal among almost all of the German children, while almost none of the Kenyan pairs distributed their rewards evenly within one round. Across the two rounds, about half of the Kenyan pairs ended up with an equal distribution of rewards – often because a different one of the two children had monopolized the hook in each round.

To better understand these results, we added two other studies. In the first one, we found that the vast majority of Kikuyu and Samburu children continued using the strategies we had seen before, irrespective of being observed or having the chance to play in a more lucrative game later. Finally, both Kenyan and German children were asked to judge others’ behaviors in a potential turn-taking scenario. After having observed two different strategies, most of the Kenyan participants said that the child monopolizing the resources had played the game the way it should be played, while their German peers unanimously thought that taking turns was the right thing to do.

Competitive games versus collaborative games

So what might be causing these behaviors? German children have much experience sharing toys and other items and will have heard many times that fifty-fifty constitutes a fair split, while Samburu and Kikuyu children typically have items such as food or school utensils divided for them without further explanation. Thus, the Kenyan children might simply not have a clear set of norms for distributing resources between themselves and a single partner, and instead applied whatever rule they thought to be most appropriate. Perhaps many Kenyan children were reminded of competitive games in which the winner (rightfully) takes it all, while German children viewed the situation as a collaborative game in which each partner should get an equal share right away.

In all, our results suggest that immediately removing inequalities (and teaching children to do so from early on) seems less essential in places where people know and frequently interact with each other over time, while modern large-scale societies in which one-off interactions with strangers are common seem to have developed strong equality norms for cooperating with non-kin – and ways of internalizing them from early on.