Fair Is Fair, But Not Everywhere

Imagine this scenario: Two commercial fishermen head out to sea at the break of dawn, and spend the next ten hours hauling in the day’s catch. When they wearily return to dock and count their take, one has three times as many fish in his hold. How should the two fishermen be compensated for the long day’s work?

Many people consider this a no-brainer. Three times the fish, three times the pay–simple. Reward is based on merit–in this case, successful fishing. In academic jargon, it’s called “merit-based distributive justice.”

The alternative–one alternative–is to divide the spoils equally. After all, both fishermen spent ten hours under the hot sun working, and brought back fish that will feed the community. And both need the money, so perhaps this is fairer, more equitable?

The weight of evidence supports merit pay as the fairer approach. Humans are markedly averse to giving workers more than they deserve, and indeed many will settle for less in order to compensate work equitably. What’s more, this attitude appears very early in childhood: Children as young as three believe that hard work merits more reward. By the time they enter school, children are like little adults in their commitment to distributive justice.

But is this impulse universal? Perhaps not, says psychological scientist Marie Schäfer of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. According to Schäfer, nobody has ever looked at how young children from different cultures think about merit when sharing rewards. There is reason to suspect that meritocracy may be more of a Western concept and value, so she and several colleagues decided to put this to the test, studying the behavior of children, four to 11 years old, in three different cultures.

Some of the children were German, of suburban working parents. Another group was from a remote rural area —> Read More