How Children Learn to Survive in a Meritocracy

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If you're feeling disgruntled about your measly paycheck, you might not have been paying enough attention in grade school. According to a new study in the journal Science, that's the age at which people begin developing concepts of fairness and economic inequality — including the notion that some people deserve to make more money than others.

In a study of 500 Norwegian schoolchildren between the ages of 11 and 19, researchers from the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration found that children start out as strict egalitarians, preferring to divide resources equally among peers. But as they grow older, by late adolescence, they come to prefer a more meritocratic method of resource distribution — based on individual contributions or performance.

Alexander Cappelen, one of the authors of the study, says it's not clear what triggers the change in philosophy, but he believes it may be the result of increasing exposure to achievement-based activities, such as sports and standardized tests. "Young children are rarely rewarded for individual achievement. There is an extremely egalitarian culture in their school life. But as they get older they are exposed to more meritocratic institutions, and that might change their views on equality," he says.

At the same time, however, there was no change over time in the study participants' willingness to do what they considered fair — that is, children did not become more (or less) self-interested with age.

The study used a modified version of the dictator game, a classic experiment used to measure attitudes toward fairness. Children were randomly divided into pairs by age-group. One member of each pair was assigned an amount of money to distribute between him or herself and the partner. On average, researchers found, the dictator gave 45% of the money to the partner, a proportion that remained constant across age-groups and gender. "That shows that 19-year-olds were as concerned about a fair distribution of income as the 13-year-olds were. That doesn't seem to change," co-author Bertil Tungodden said in an online interview on the Science website.

An important feature of this particular experiment, however, was the addition of a "production phase," which was designed to motivate dictators to distribute money based on individual achievement. In the 45-minute production session, students were given a computer task — ticking off the appearance of a particular number on a sequence of screens filled with numbers — that allowed them to earn points. They were also given the option of switching from the computer task to an entertainment site, where they could read cartoons or play computer games instead.

Afterward, in the distribution phase of the game, the dictator was given information about his or her partner's time spent on the task and the number of points that were collected. What researchers found was that individual achievement mattered much more to older kids than younger ones when it came to the distribution of resources. Somewhere between fifth grade and seventh grade, students became much more accepting of income inequalities that reflected differences in production. "The large majority of fifth-graders were strict egalitarians and, remarkably, there were almost no meritocrats at this grade level," the authors write. "In contrast, meritocratism was the dominant position in late adolescence, and the share of strict egalitarians fell dramatically."

It begs the question: Are we all born communists? After all, the finding seems to suggest that people's innate inclination is toward income equality, a view that changes only when they are influenced by market-based values. Is strict egalitarianism our state-of-nature preference? "I don't think so," says Cappelen. "You could turn it around and say that people who have a communist view lack maturity and hold a childish view. Maybe communists lack the cognitive ability to make the distinction between different types of equalities."

The study notes that the "meritocratic fairness view presupposes the ability to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information, a cognitive ability that matures during adolescence." Being an egalitarian, on the other hand, is pretty straightforward, requiring little understanding or justification of different forms of inequality. In other words, the older you get, the more you learn to appreciate why unequal does not necessarily mean unfair: "For example, in the workplace, some may find it fair that a more productive colleague has a higher wage, and, in allocating public funds, some may find it fair to pay some attention to which projects produce the greatest total benefits for the population."

But Cappelen acknowledges that a society's values can have a profound impact on the formation of fairness view — and, hence, economic beliefs. He said the results of his study would almost certainly have been different had it been carried out in the U.S., where people tolerate much higher levels of income inequality than Norwegians do. "I think you would see the same trend but maybe a difference in degrees and a difference in terms of what age that shift takes place. It's possible that the reason the 11-year-olds were so egalitarian is because Norway is a very egalitarian country."

Cappelen adds that the study bolsters a growing body of research that shows how moral considerations affect economic decisions. It's an important breakthrough considering that mainstream economic theories are predicated on the principle that people always act in their self-interest. But the pure version of the dictator game disputes this: in a variety of settings and among different ages and groups, people almost never take all the money for themselves (ironically, Cappelen says that economics students tend to take the largest share).

Regarding his own study, Cappelen warns against drawing any facile conclusions about how his results should influence educational policy, but says that "the way we treat children should take into account what they think is fair, and that changes over time. Teachers and educators have an intuitive feeling for this, I think. But it's good for the rest of us to be reminded of it."