Our Sense of Fairness Changes as Early as Age 4

iStock / iStock

When one person in a group does something bad, is it fair to punish the individual or the group? It turns out, your answer to that question probably depends on your age. When it comes to punishments and rewards, a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan found that younger children are more likely to believe that the entire group should face the consequences of an individual’s actions. Older children and adults, meanwhile, tend to believe the individual alone should receive punishments and rewards for their actions.

According to the study, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, 4- to 5-year-olds are the most likely to think discipline should be doled out to the whole group. And that belief declines as children age. “A teacher who rewards or punishes a whole class for the good deed or misdeed of just one student is more likely to be seen as fair by 4- to 5-year-olds but as less fair by older children,” says researcher Craig Smith. “Likewise, the data suggest that most older children and adults will feel that the common practice of punishing everyone for the misdeed of one or a few is unfair.”

But 4- to 5-year-olds didn’t just want to dole out punishment. They also overwhelmingly said that rewards should be shared by the entire group. Researchers believe that the younger children’s belief in the fairness of shared rewards and discipline may have been inspired by compassion and a reluctance to single anyone out.