The Impact of Inequality on Young Children's Prosocial Behaviors

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Shu, Yuhang, Psychology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Vaish, Amrisha, AS-Psychology (PSYC), University of Virginia

Inequality, especially wealth inequality, has been steadily increasing over several decades around the world. Previous studies indicated that greater inequality adversely affects adults’ social behaviors and wellbeing. Yet it remains unknown whether and how the experience of inequality impacts young children’s social behaviors. The present study addressed this gap by examining how 4- to 9-year-old children’s experience of inequality impacts their general prosocial behaviors. Children in the U.S. (N = 236) were asked to play a distribution game with a peer and were randomly assigned to receiving half as many (Disadvantageous Inequality, DI), twice as many (Advantageous Inequality, AI), or the same number of tokens as a peer (Equality, E) or half as many as a box (Non-social DI). We then measured their sharing behavior toward a new child. The results suggested that across ages, children judged the machine as unfair when they received less than the peer (DI), whereas only older children also judged receiving more than the peer (AI) as unfair. The experience of inequality also gave rise to negative emotion. However, inequality did not undermine children’s sharing behavior; rather, children shared more generously with age. Further, an exploratory analysis suggested that the experience of receiving more than the peer (AI) may promote boys’ prosociality. Together, this study explored the effects of inequality on children’s prosocial behavior and points to important future directions for exploring how wealth inequality may impact children’s social functioning and long-term wellbeing.

MA (Master of Arts)
Inequality, Prosocial Behavior, Fairness, Sharing, Development
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