“That’s not fair,” said every child ever, at one point or another. We all know that children can have firm convictions about what’s fair and what’s not, but it turns out that infants as young as 13 months seem to value fairness.

That’s according to a study of 13- and 17-month infants by psychology researchers at University of Washington.

In the study, the infants watched videos of someone distributing crackers to two other people. In one video, the person would distribute the crackers fairly, and in the other they distributed the crackers unfairly. In the fair version, each person received three crackers. In the unfair version, though, one person received five crackers and the other was given a single, sad cracker.

After distributing the crackers, the person in the video would appear to drop a toy into a container in the room placed next to the video screen. In reality, the toy had already been “planted” in the container, creating the illusion that the person in the video was putting a toy into the container.

The researchers then observed whether the infants in the study chose to take a toy from one of the containers and, if so, whether they went for the toy that had been given to them by the fair distributor of crackers or the unfair distributor.

As it turned out, both the 13- and the 17-month old infants had a strong preference for toys from the fair distributor. In fact, for both groups, about 80 percent of the infants selected the toy from the fair distributor. Even toddlers understand that you can never trust someone who only gives you one cracker!

Based on previous research, the psychologists were working on the assumption that fairness expectations develop around 10 months of age. That assumption comes from previous studies on fairness in infants, which have shown, for example, that infants have a preference for fairness at 10 months and 15 months, but not at 6-9 months.

What this study confirms is that, once fairness expectations do emerge, they emerge quickly and become strongly ingrained. Fairness appears to be a core value that shows up early and that people can act on before they can talk.

Image: Flickr/Bob Brotchie