Thursday 17 December 2015

Fairness for me and then (perhaps) for thee

Here’s a simple game to assess children's sense of fairness, with important implications. Children seem to learn from an early age to reject an offer which is unfair them (offered less than the other child), even if the rejection means that neither they nor the other child gets anything. However, at what age, if ever, do they reject an unfair distribution which favours them (offered more than the other child)?
Blake et al. (2015) The ontogeny of fairness in seven societies. Nature. 10 December 2015

It turns out that 3 societies have high minded altruists, and 4 don’t, though we can live in hope that they develop them in due course. Here are the groups who were studied. Glance at them, and make your predictions.

In fact the angels come from Canada, US and Uganda.

Upward pointing scores on the right show rejection of unfair advantage. So, kids in Mexico, Peru, India and Senegal rake in an unfair bounty of sweeties (though the Mexicans seem to be learning as they mature, while the Peruvians are getting less equitable). Ugandan, US and Canadian kids are paragons of virtue, turning down allocations of goodies which are unfairly in their favour.

Like most results, the interpretation is a projective test. The US and Canada are white, wealth and Christian, and just the sort of societies which encourage altruism. Uganda? Um….African, Christian, but not wealthy. Other nominally Christian countries do not show Christian charity. Protestantism is a possible factor, but that does not account for Canada.  Candidly, at first glance no grand hypothesis suggests itself. Funny things, facts. This is the delight of research: presumptions are confounded, and must be re-examined.

I think it best to strip off the national labels, because these are not representative national samples, but a smattering of villages. Sample sizes and the basis for selection need to be examined.

My rule of thumb is that samples should be 30 and over, simply because at roughly that level gains in significance start levelling off. On that basis only the US sample meets standards. We should forget the 13-15 year comparisons. The Indian and Mexican 10-12 year figures are also far too low to draw firm conclusions. The proportion of familiar/unfamiliar pairs varies wildly, but doesn’t seem to match the key results, so is probably not relevant, though I don’t see it analysed in the statistical tables.

The game does not tax the intellect, so might not seem the sort of thing which would be linked to intelligence. At the same time, there is an intelligent argument that if you reject unfairness even when it is to your advantage, it will propagate the ideals of fairness, from which all will benefit in the long run. Slow life history, deferred gratification, wisdom: you know the score by now. However, why should Uganda have a slow life trajectory?

The supplementary data gives very good descriptions of the societies from which the children were drawn, but I do not know why these were picked, other than convenience. They are certainly very different, which is probably the main thing.

The paper is well written and the findings cautiously presented. I would have preferred that the sample sizes were given in Table 1, but that’s experimentalists for you. Psychometricians always prefer larger samples, and that samples should be as representative of the population as possible.

What else should be measured in these children? Perhaps Piagetian conservation of mass? Piagetian perspective-taking? Personality? Some additional other test of altruism? Perhaps a little school test with a chance for them to cheat?  If the children were granted anonymity, how would that affect the results?

I think this is an intriguing finding, which leads to new hypotheses, and should be replicated on larger samples before we can draw any strong conclusions. 


  1. Antigonish has a strong Scottish heritage, according to the town's website. Tourism Nova Scotia dubs it the "Highland Heart of Nova Scotia." To quote from the page, "Rich with Scottish culture, Antigonish is host to the Antigonish Highland Games, the oldest continuously running Highland Games outside of Scotland. 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the Highland Games which takes place the week of July 7-14. "

    I wonder how many of the children from Boston had Irish heritage?

    In other words, could the altruism found in two locations have Celtic roots? How different were the two samples? Boston was settled and governed by the English, until the Revolutionary War. So there are families with Celtic and English forebears in both locations.

  2. Happy to entertain that hypothesis, so long as you can link it to Uganda. Celtic revivalist preachers converting the locals?

    1. How about the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa, also known as the White Sisters (according to Wikipedia)? Founded in France in the 19th Century.

      The first sisters were recruited from Brittany. According to Wikipedia, "Brittany and its people are counted as one of the six Celtic nations. Ethnically, along with the Cornish and Welsh, the Bretons are the last vestiges of the ancient Britons. "

      Further, "At first the White Sisters were mainly French, but later missionaries joined from other countries.[12] The first community of White Sisters in Canada was established in Quebec City in October 1903, with three French and one Canadian sister. Their goal was to recruit young women as missionaries. Over the next century, 464 women from Canada and 93 from the United States joined the White Sisters."

      The White Sisters founded the dispensary which became Virika Hospital in Fort Portal in 1911.

      And, um, apparently Idi Amin had great respect for Scotland.

      "The director and producer of the Artworks documentary, Fran Robertson said: "We were keen to find original news footage to put the film in context and really show Amin's affinity with Scotland. There's one scene from real-life footage from 1976, where a full African-American band are marching down the streets of Uganda in full kilt regalia, playing drums and bagpipes. We also heard numerous reports of him Scottish dancing and drinking whisky while he was in the army."

      Documentary footage reveals that one of the bagpipers who plays for the fictional Amin in the film, John Olima, was sent to Scotland by Amin in the late 1970s for a year to learn to play the bagpipes.

      Read more:
      Follow us: @TheScotsman on Twitter | TheScotsmanNewspaper on Facebook

      Reality is weirder than fiction.

      Of course, it could be the influence of bagpipes.

    2. all becomes clear! Thanks for your spirited contribution.


    This is anecdotal but revealing. It is the poor one who want to share.

  4. "This is the delight of research: presumptions are confounded, and must be re-examined." Them wuz the days, doc.

    In East Coast's comment I loved this "a full African-American band are marching down the streets of Uganda in full kilt regalia, playing drums and bagpipes." I think that an inaccurate Americanism might have snuck into that.

  5. @James - I would have to disagree, I'm afraid.

    This result is not *scientifically* interesting - but only interesting in a 'pub conversation' kind of way. It would have been interesting if all the societies showed the same pattern, or (possibly) if the pattern either confirmed or refuted a very tight hypothesis derived from strong prior evidence.

    But this result is just neither one thing nor t'other and does not move things forward at all.

    In a rational world this is either a case for 'try again' with better controls; or maybe one for Journal of Negative Results: Psychology stamp-collecting sub-section - but Nature? Presumably they liked the PC spin which could semi-plausibly be put onto it...

    This is the way of science - some results of a given study (assuming, big assumption, it has been done honestly and competently) are much more scientifically informative than others - i.e. some results change the way we should regard things, and plans for future work - but most don't. This is one of the latter.

  6. I do not make big claims for it, but repeated on larger samples and linked to other measures (intelligence, personality) it suggests an interesting measure of egotistic perspectives