Intergroup Inequality and Fair Allocation in Childhood and Adolescence

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Elenbaas, Laura Marie
Killen, Melanie
Understanding children’s perceptions of social inequalities is essential, as attitudes established in childhood can continue into adulthood, sustaining a damaging cycle of exclusion. This study examined 8-14 year-olds’ perceptions of economic disparities in access to opportunities, decisions about whether to correct or perpetuate these inequalities, and expectations for whether others would do the same. In order to place these issues in a familiar context, participants (N = 342) decided whom to admit to an educational summer camp opportunity when access had been restricted in the past based on economic status. Three central findings emerged. First, in contrast to pervasive assumptions about wealth and merit, children who were aware of economic inequalities were more likely to choose low-wealth peers when they had the chance to decide whom to admit to a special opportunity. Building on the theoretical foundation of the social reasoning development model (Killen, Elenbaas, & Rutland, 2015), these findings provide evidence for how awareness of intergroup relations can contribute to moral judgments in childhood. However, children interpreted inequality through the lens of their own economic background, exhibiting more concern for peers who were more economically similar to them. These socioeconomic differences have implications for peer relations in childhood and adolescence, and may have implications for social stratification later in life. Second, in contrast to their own decisions, between childhood and adolescence children increasingly expected others to seek access to opportunities for themselves. Further, children from higher-income families expected more self-serving tendencies than children from lower-income families. There are likely several mechanisms underlying higher-income children’s perceptions, potentially including exposure to competitive stereotypes from peers. Third, children held stereotypes about economic groups, and were increasingly likely to reference these stereotypes between childhood and adolescence. Stereotypes about the wealthy were similar to those observed in adults (e.g., competitive, entitled, selfish). Surprisingly, stereotypes about low-wealth peers were benevolent (e.g., kind, grateful, generous). However, “positive” stereotypes like these can be used to rationalize existing inequalities. These results have broader implications for educators and policy-makers interested in designing programs that encourage consideration of economic inequality and fairness in development.