Fairness versus favoritism in children

Alex Shaw, Peter DeScioli, Kristina R. Olson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

68 Scopus citations


Children respond positively to individuals who favor them and also to individuals who are fair. The present studies examine the interaction between these two preferences by presenting children with two distributors who share resources with the child participant and another recipient. Children are asked whom they like better: the distributor who was unfair but favored the child participant or the distributor who was fair and showed no (or reduced) favoritism. In Study 1, we find that when fairness and favoritism are in conflict, children are split on whom they prefer. In Study 2, we find that placing children in a competitive context leads to a stronger preference for the distributor who favored the child participant. In Study 3, we examine whether children's preference for favoritism persists when both distributors gave the child the same number of rewards, but one distributor gave the child participant relatively more than the other recipient. In this situation, we find that children prefer the fair distributor. However, we again find that creating a competitive context reduces children's preference for the fair distributor. Finally we find that in a third-party context, children value fairness over generosity. Taken together, these results show how children balance competing concerns for fairness and favoritism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)736-745
Number of pages10
JournalEvolution and Human Behavior
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2012
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


  • Alliances
  • Cognitive development
  • Competition
  • Fairness
  • Inequity aversion
  • Reciprocity


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