The influence of friendship and merit on children's resource allocation in three societies

Jan M Engelmann, Zhen Zhang, Henriette Zeidler, Yarrow Dunham, Esther Herrmann

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Recent work has suggested that principles of fairness that seem like natural laws to the Western mind, such as sharing more of the spoils with those who contributed more, can in fact vary significantly across populations. To build a better understanding of the developmental roots of population differences with respect to fairness, we investigated whether 7-year-old children (N = 432) from three cultural backgrounds-Kenya, China, and Germany-consider friendship and merit in their distribution of resources and how they resolve conflicts between the two. We found that friendship had considerable and consistent influence as a cross-culturally recurrent motivation: children in all three cultures preferentially shared with a friend rather than with a neutral familiar peer. On the other hand, the role of merit in distribution seemed to differ cross-culturally: children in China and Germany, but not in Kenya, selectively distributed resources to individuals who worked more. When we pitted friendship against merit, there was an approximately even split in all three cultures between children who favored the undeserving friend and children who shared with the hard-working neutral individual. These results demonstrate commonalities and variability in fairness perceptions across distinct cultures and speak to the importance of cross-cultural research in understanding the development of the human mind. [Abstract copyright: Copyright © 2021 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.]
Original languageEnglish
Article number105149
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
Early online date13 Apr 2021
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2021


  • Cross-cultural comparison
  • Fairness
  • Friendship
  • Inequality
  • Merit
  • Sharing


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