Infants with a high sense of justice

Children's sense of justice begins at the age of 15 months

Even small children have a sense of fairness and fairness. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and the University of Washington in Seattle, USA, have shown in a study on children aged 15 months that they already have a pronounced sense of justice with regard to the distribution of cookies and milk feature.

The more pronounced the children's sense of justice, the more they tended to act altruistically (selflessly) and were willing to share their favorite toys, the scientists report in the specialist journal "PloS ONE". With their study, the researchers hope to open up new approaches to explaining human cooperation as "an important driving force behind the evolutionary success of our" species.

Justice perception study Jessica A. Sommerville from the University of Washington and Marco F. H. Schmidt from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology investigated the perception of justice and altruistic behavior in 47 toddlers aged 15 months as part of the current study. Since the toddlers cannot yet express their feelings in words, the researchers used certain behaviors to draw conclusions about the feelings of the little ones. Babies tend to focus on their eyes for a long time on things they do not know or do not meet their expectations. This phenomenon enabled the researchers to differentiate the children's reaction between "expectations fulfilled" and "violations of expectations". The scientists showed video sequences to the babies, in which one person divides a portion of cookies between two other people. Sitting on their parents' lap, the children saw two videos with different biscuit layouts. On the one hand, the treats are divided fairly between the other two people, on the other hand, one person receives significantly more than the second. While playing the videos, the researchers observed exactly how long the babies fixed the scenes with their eyes. In another test, the procedure was repeated with videos showing the distribution of milk between two people.

Relationship between selfless action and a sense of justice After the video tests, the researchers compared the results with the willingness of young children to hand over or share their favorite toys. Jessica A. Sommerville and colleagues found that children (92%) who were more willing to share their favorite toys fixed the video with the unfair distribution of milk or biscuits for longer. According to the researcher, the little ones "expected a fair distribution of the food and were surprised to see that one person received more cookies or milk than the other". The opposite was observed for the children, who acted more selfishly or did not want to give up their favorite toys. With their eyes, they fixed the fair distribution of food and drinks for 86 percent longer. As the researchers write in the journal "PloS ONE", their "results are the first proof that the roots of a fundamental sense of fairness and altruism can be found in childhood, and that these can be found in a parallel and interwoven manner develop."

The norms of fairness and selflessness are therefore acquired much earlier than previously assumed. The researchers were able to determine a sense of justice in the 15-month-old toddlers that had previously only been demonstrated in children aged six to seven, study leader Jessica A. Sommerville emphasized the importance of her investigations. The clear connection between the willingness to help others or to share one's favorite toy and the sense of fairness was also astonishing, the experts continued. According to Jessica A. Sommerville, there is a clear connection between the sense of justice and the tendency to act selflessly.

In the course of their studies, the researchers have so far not been able to clarify how toddlers acquire a sense of justice, fairness and altruism at an early stage in their lives, or whether this is inherently prescribed. But it suggests that "toddlers adopt these norms non-verbally by observing how people around them interact with each other," says study leader Jessica A. Sommerville. In further studies, the researchers now want to investigate to what extent parents' attitudes and behavior influence children's reactions. (fp)

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