^{1}

^{2}

^{3}

^{1}

^{2}

^{*}

^{1}

^{2}

^{3}

Edited by: Martina Smorti, University of Pisa, Italy

Reviewed by: Valerie Kuhlmeier, Queen’s University, Canada; Sunae Kim, Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary

This article was submitted to Developmental Psychology, a section of the journal Frontiers in Psychology

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

Previous studies have explored children’s intergroup resource allocation in the context of preexisting intergroup resource inequality. However, resource inequality between social groups often originates from different factors. This study explored the role of the origins of resource inequality on children’s intergroup resource allocations. In experiment 1, when there was no explicit origin of the intergroup inequality, children of different ages mainly allocated resources in an equal way and 5- to 6-year-olds showed ingroup bias. In experiment 2, we examined the influence of different origins of intergroup inequality and found that 5- to 6-year-olds perpetuated intergroup inequality when resource inequality was based on either a structural (regional disparity) or an internal factor (difference in performance). However, 10- to 11-year-olds rectified inequality or allocated equally when intergroup inequality was based on regional disparity and perpetuated resource inequality when intergroup inequality was based on performance difference. The origins of inequality appear to play an important role in children’s intergroup resource allocations, and older children can distinguish different origins of intergroup inequality in resource allocation.

Inequalities are widespread in modern society, including economic, educational, and medical inequalities based on country, region, gender, race, or social class (

Fairness is the criterion for resource allocation (

However, the unequal allocation of resources may occur due to many factors in the process of resource allocation, such as self-interest (

In early childhood, children begin to distinguish resource inequality between individuals based on these fair and unfair factors. Compared to equal allocation or higher allocation to ones with less labor, infants anticipate that two objects will receive unequal resources according to their merits (

In addition to between individuals, social interaction often occurs between different social groups, and children are often faced with resource inequality between groups. According to the social reasoning developmental (SRD) perspective, in intergroup contexts, developing children not only show concerns about fairness but also weigh group concerns such as group identification, group norms, and group status in their reasoning about resource allocation (

The system justification theory (SJT) suggests that people consider the existing status to be just and reasonable, and they are motivated to maintain their status (

However, other studies suggest that children take the disadvantages of certain groups into account and rectify inequality (

It can be seen that children’s resource allocation behaviors in the context of intergroup inequality may be different depending on which social groups are involved. In reality, social inequality is often reflected between some specific social groups, such as different genders, ethnicities, or regional groups (

Ingroup bias also has an effect on children’s distributive justice in intergroup contexts. Children allocate more resources to friends than to strangers or disliked peers (

When facing existing inequalities between ingroups and outgroups, young children are more likely to reject inequality that disadvantages the ingroups and allocate more to the disadvantaged ingroups; however, with age, children’s ingroup preferences weaken, and they tend to rectify the disadvantages of both ingroups and outgroups (

In this study, performance was selected as an internal factor, region was selected as a structural factor, and intergroup resource inequalities based on differences in performance or region were presented. This is because in children’s daily education environments, academic performance is an important indicator for evaluating children. Schools with different academic performances may obtain unequal educational resources. Disparities in regional economic status (such as differences between urban and rural areas) can also lead to inequality in educational resources (

Children aged 5–6 and 10–11 years were recruited. Previous studies have found that 5- to 6-year-old children can rectify inequality between individuals in resource allocation (

The role of the origins of intergroup resource inequality in the intergroup resource allocation of children aged 5–6 and 10–11 years was investigated in this study. There were three situations where intergroup resource inequality without an explicit origin, intergroup resource inequality based on an internal factor (levels of performance), or intergroup resource inequality based on a structural factor (regional advantages or disadvantages) were presented. We explored how children weigh group concerns and fairness principles to allocate resources and compared the differences in children’s resource allocation between different situations.

Based on previous research findings, we predicted that the origins of intergroup resource inequality affected children’s intergroup resource allocation. Compared with the situation of presenting inequality with no explicit origin, when intergroup resource inequality was based on an internal factor, children of both age groups would be more likely to perpetuate resource inequality, and when resource inequality was based on a structural factor, only older children (10- to 11-year-olds) would be more likely to rectify resource inequality (

The aim of experiment 1 was to explore children’s intergroup resource allocation when preexisting intergroup resources inequality had no explicit origin. To exclude the influence of past experience in real groups, minimal groups were used in this experiment. Referring to previous studies (

Children aged 5–6 years old in kindergarten (^{∗}Power 3.1. Children were recruited from an ordinary kindergarten and primary school in Beijing. According to the information provided by the teachers and the community where the kindergarten and the school were located, most children’s families were from middle-class background. Informed consent was obtained from caregivers and children themselves. This study was approved by the ethics committee of the Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The experiment was conducted in a quiet reading room, and children were tested individually by trained research assistants. The research assistants described the intergroup situations using pictures. There were two intergroup conditions: one in which the ingroup was at a resource advantage (i.e., outgroup at a disadvantage) and the other in which the ingroup was at a resource disadvantage (i.e., outgroup at an advantage). Each participant completed both conditions, and the order of the two scenarios was balanced. After each scenario was presented, children completed the resource allocation task. The entire experiment lasted approximately 15 min.

Before the experiment started, children were randomly assigned a sticker with different colors (half received red stickers and half received green stickers). In the ingroup advantaged scenario, participants were presented with pictures of two groups and told that they were in the same group as children with the same color stickers. The gender of characters in intergroup situations always matched that of children. Next, children were told how many pens the two groups had: “Now the students have some pens for learning. The first student in your green/red star group has four pens, and the student in the red/green star group has one pen. Look at others. The second student in the green/red star group also has four pens, and the second student in the red/green star group also has one pen.” In the ingroup disadvantaged scenario, the children were told how many books the ingroup and another outgroup (i.e., blue star group) had: each student in the ingroup had one book and each student in the outgroup had four books.

After each scenario was presented, the experimenter asked participants two questions to ensure the establishment of participants’ group membership and participants’ knowledge of the intergroup contexts, “Which students are you in/not in a group with?” and “Which group of students have more pens/books?” All participants in this study answered the questions correctly and proceeded to the following resource allocation phase. Then, participants were asked to allocate pens/books to students in the two groups who did not have pens/books: “Now there is another student in each group who does not have pens/books yet. Here are five pens/books. You can distribute them to the two students. You can choose to distribute all five pens/books or return some to me if you do not want to distribute all of them. Now, please start to put the pens/books in the corresponding envelopes (showing two envelopes with pictures of each student).” After the allocations were completed, children were asked to explain the reasons for their choices.

First, this experiment used mixed analysis of variance (ANOVA) to explore the differences in the number of resources children allocated to each group. Children’s allocations between the two groups were categorized into three types: rectifying inequality (allocating more to students in the disadvantaged group), perpetuating inequality (allocating more to students in the advantaged group), and equal distribution. The chi-square test of independence was used to analyze the differences in children’s resource allocation patterns. Finally, to understand the motivations of children of different ages and their recognition of the intergroup allocation contexts, children’s justifications for their allocation behavior were collected, coded, and analyzed using chi-square tests.

Based on previous studies (

Data analyses were performed by SPSS 20.0. A 2 (age: 5–6 and 10–11) × 2 (ingroup status: ingroup advantaged and ingroup disadvantaged) × 2 (recipients: the advantaged and the disadvantaged) three-factor mixed-design ANOVA with the number of school supplies allocated to recipients as the dependent variable was conducted. The results are shown in ^{2}_{p}

Number of resources children allocated between groups in experiment 1.

To further analyze the three-way interaction, two 2 (age) × 2 (recipients) ANOVAs were conducted. When the ingroup was at an advantage, a significant interactive effect was found, ^{2}_{p}_{s} > 0.05.

In addition, for younger children, a significant two-way interaction was found by a 2 (ingroup status) × 2 (recipients) ANOVA, ^{2}_{p}_{s}

The analysis of the children’s resource allocation patterns showed that both younger and older children mainly distributed resources in an equal way. When the ingroup was at an advantage, the chi-square test of independence indicated that there were differences in allocation patterns between younger children and older children, χ^{2}(2, _{s}

Percentage of allocation patterns between groups in experiment 1.

The above results showed that younger children were more likely to rectify resource inequality and less likely to perpetuate inequality when their ingroup was at a disadvantage than when their outgroup was disadvantaged, thus showing ingroup preference. Moreover, older children were more likely to rectify inequality or allocate equally regardless of whether their ingroup was at an advantage or disadvantage. However, in terms of the allocation patterns, most children of different ages make equal allocation irrespective of the conditions.

The chi-square test of independence showed that regardless of whether the ingroup was at a resource advantage or a disadvantage, there was no significant difference in the justifications for their allocation behavior between age group, χ^{2}(3, ^{2}(3,

Children’s justifications for allocation in the context of inequality without an explicit origin.

5–6 years old | 10–11 years old | |||

Ingroup advantaged (%) | Ingroup disadvantaged (%) | Ingroup advantaged (%) | Ingroup disadvantaged (%) | |

Preference for the advantaged | 8.80 | 5.90 | 2.90 | 2.90 |

Compensation for the disadvantaged | 20.60 | 17.60 | 26.50 | 26.50 |

Equality | 47.10 | 50.00 | 61.80 | 58.80 |

Other | 23.50 | 26.50 | 8.80 | 11.80 |

This experiment explored how children distributed school supplies between ingroup and outgroup members when witnessing a preexisting intergroup school supplies inequality. We found that both younger and older children tended to allocate resources in an equal manner when presented with preexisting intergroup resource inequality with no explicit origin. Compared with the situation where the outgroup was disadvantaged, more younger children rectified resource inequality when their ingroup was at a disadvantage, showing ingroup preference.

Previous studies have also found ingroup preferences in younger children when resources are unequal. Children aged 5–6 years show their preference for friends in resource allocation, even when friends are richer than strangers (

Experiment 2 investigated the resource allocation of children in intergroup contexts when the preexisting resource inequality between groups was based on a structural factor (i.e., region) or an internal factor (i.e., performance).

Children aged 5–6 years old in kindergarten (

Except for the intergroup situations presented, the experimental procedures and tasks were the same as those in experiment 1. All participants witnessed intergroup resource inequality situations based on intergroup differences in region and performance, and the order in which the situations were presented was balanced among the participants.

In the ingroup-advantaged scenario, pictures of houses and schools/kindergartens of two groups were presented, including one group living in the same place as the participants (Beijing) and one group living in a different place (Li Village; a fictional place was used to avoid the influence of participants’ experience). The number of pens owned by students in the two places was then described: each student from Beijing had four pens, and each student from Li Village had one pen. Then, the reason for the difference in the number of pens between the two groups was explained (i.e., students’ families in Beijing were richer than students’ families in Li Village, and their housing and schools/kindergartens were in better conditions in Beijing; thus, they had more school supplies than students in Li Village).

In the ingroup-disadvantaged scenario, students of another group from Shangzhou (also a fictional place) were introduced to participants, and pictures of two groups in Beijing and Shangzhou were presented. Next, the number of stationery sets in each group was described, and the reason for the difference in the number of stationery sets between the two groups was also described (i.e., students in Shangzhou were richer than students in Beijing, and their housing and schools/kindergartens were in better conditions).

Participants first participated in the “I know” game so that they could identify the group to which they belonged in the intergroup situation based on performance. To involve participants in the ingroup-advantaged and ingroup-disadvantaged scenarios, we ensured that they answered three out of five questions correctly within the prescribed time by presenting five questions of different difficulty levels according to the grade of children. At the end of the game, each participant was rewarded with a red star sticker.

In the ingroup-advantaged scenario, students in the red star group (the ingroup) and students in the gray star group (the outgroup) were introduced, and the number of pens they owned was described. Then, the reason for the different numbers of pens between the in- and outgroups was explained: each student in the red star group answered three questions correctly, and no students in the gray star group answered a question correctly, and thus, students in the red star group had four pens each, whereas students in the gray star group had one pen each.

In the ingroup-disadvantaged scenario, students of another group (multicolored star group) were presented, and the number of books owned by the ingroup (the red star group) and the outgroup (the multicolored star group) was shown. Children were told that the multicolored star group members received four books each, and the red star group members received one book each because the multicolored star group members answered all five questions correctly and performed better.

Differences in children’s resource allocation behavior and justifications when intergroup resource inequalities were based on region and performance were analyzed. The results of this experiment were compared with the results of experiment 1 to explore the role of the origins of intergroup resource inequality in children’s resource allocation.

Children’s reasons for allocation were divided into the same four categories as in experiment 1. The “Preference for the advantaged” category involved explanations such as “Beijing is richer” and “They answered more, so I praise them.” In the category of “Compensation for the disadvantaged,” children mentioned explanations such as “Li Village is very poor and can’t afford it” and “Their group has too few and should have more.” The other two categories of “Equality” and “Other” were the same as those in experiment 1. After two independent coders coded 25% of the data (

A 2 (origins of inequality: region, performance) × 2 (age: 5–6 and 10–11) × 2 (ingroup status: ingroup advantaged and ingroup disadvantaged) × 2 (recipients: the advantaged and the disadvantaged) four-way mixed-design ANOVA with the number of school supplies allocated as the dependent variable was conducted. The results showed that there was a significant four-way interaction, ^{2}_{p}

For intergroup resource inequality based on region, the three-way interaction was significant, ^{2}_{p}^{2}_{p}^{2}_{p}

Number of resources children allocated between groups in the context of inequality based on region

The analysis results of children’s allocation patterns when intergroup inequality was based on region were consistent with the above results, as shown in ^{2}(2, ^{2}(2, _{s} < 0.05; young children were more likely to perpetuate resource inequality than older children, _{s} < 0.05.

Percentage of allocation patterns between groups in experiment 2.

When intergroup resource inequality was based on performance, the 2 (age) × 2 (ingroup status) × 2 (recipients) follow-up ANOVA showed that the ingroup status × recipients two-way interaction was significant, ^{2}_{p}_{s}_{s}_{s} > 0.05, as illustrated in

In summary, in the context of intergroup inequality based on region, younger children allocated more to the advantaged group, whereas older children allocated more to the disadvantaged group or in an equal way. When the intergroup resource inequality was based on performance, all children distributed more to the advantaged group members.

The proportions of the four categories of children’s justifications for their resource allocation are also shown in ^{2}^{2}_{s}_{s}^{2}^{2}

Children’s justifications for allocation in the context of inequality with different origins.

Inequality based on region | Inequality based on performance | |||||||

5–6 years old | 10–11 years old | 5–6 years old | 10–11 years old | |||||

Ingroup advantaged (%) | Ingroup disadvantaged (%) | Ingroup advantaged (%) | Ingroup disadvantaged (%) | Ingroup advantaged (%) | Ingroup disadvantaged (%) | Ingroup advantaged (%) | Ingroup disadvantaged (%) | |

Preference for the advantaged | 52.90 | 47.10 | 8.80 | 11.80 | 55.90 | 50.00 | 73.50 | 58.80 |

Compensation for the disadvantaged | 8.80 | 17.60 | 73.50 | 29.40 | 2.90 | 8.80 | 5.90 | 23.50 |

Equality | 20.60 | 17.60 | 17.60 | 50.00 | 20.60 | 20.60 | 17.60 | 14.70 |

Other | 17.60 | 17.60 | 0.00 | 8.80 | 20.60 | 20.60 | 2.90 | 2.90 |

To explore the impact of resource inequality with a structural origin on children’s intergroup resource allocation, a 2 (origins of inequality: region and no origin) × 2 (age: 5–6 and 10–11) × 2 (ingroup status: ingroup advantaged and ingroup disadvantaged) × 2 (recipients: the advantaged and the disadvantaged) four-factor mixed ANOVA was conducted. The results showed that the interaction effect of the four factors was significant, ^{2}_{p}^{2}_{p}^{2}_{p}^{2}_{p}^{2}_{p}

Simple effects tests showed that younger children allocated more to the advantaged group members when intergroup resource inequality was based on the region than when inequality had no explicit origin, regardless of whether their ingroup was advantaged or disadvantaged, _{s}

Similarly, the impact of resource inequality with an internal origin on children’s resource allocation was explored. The results of four-way mixed ANOVA showed that the four-way interaction effect was significant, ^{2}_{p}^{2}_{p}^{2}_{p}^{2}_{p}^{2}_{p}_{s}

This experiment explored the role of different origins of intergroup resource inequality in children’s intergroup resource allocation. Younger children tended to perpetuate resource inequalities by allocating more resources to group members who were already advantaged regardless of whether the inequality was due to region or performance differences. Older children paid more attention to the needs, performance, and equality of group members, and thus, they were more inclined to rectify resource inequality or allocate resources equally when intergroup resource inequality with the regional origin and perpetuated resource inequality based on performance.

In previous Western studies, when intergroup resource inequality is based on structural factors (e.g., Black and White groups), older children always allocate more resources to groups with fewer resources, while younger children do not (

We also noticed that older children tended to rectify inequality when they were at a regional advantage, while allocated equally when they were at a regional disadvantage. The economic development gap between urban and rural areas is huge in China, and in some poor regions, children’s living and learning environments are far worse. We believe that older children are aware of this gap (

In addition, by comparing with experiment 1, we find that origins of intergroup resource inequality (based on either an internal or structural factor) have an important influence on children’s resource allocation behaviors. Children mainly distributed resources equally, and younger children showed ingroup preference when there was no explicit origin of intergroup inequality. However, in the context of intergroup inequalities with origins, younger children were more likely to perpetuate inequalities, whereas older children were more likely to rectify inequality due to region and perpetuate inequality due to performance, and they did not show ingroup preference. This may be because children tend to allocate resources equally to maintain harmony when there is no obvious clue to be used in resource allocation, and ingroup preference becomes a motivation for younger children’s allocation. Nevertheless, children of different ages are both more likely to make allocations based on different clues when there are some explicit bases for allocation (

This study explored the role of the origins of resource inequality in children’s intergroup resource allocation in the context of preexisting intergroup resource inequality. We found that when inequality was not based on an explicit origin, children mainly distributed resources equally, and younger children manifested ingroup favoritism. When different origins of intergroup resource inequality were introduced, children were more likely to recognize inequality caused by an internal factor, and older children would further rectify inequality based on a structural factor. Based on the SRD perspective, this study extends previous studies and aims to explain how children weigh fairness and group concerns in the context of intergroup resource inequality with different origins (

When facing intergroup resource inequality with no explicit origin, Chinese children may be more concerned about equality in the amount of resources allocated (

Children aged 5–6 years old maintained the existing resource inequalities, displaying a tendency of using system justification for intergroup resource inequalities with clear origins (

We found that older children aged 10–11 years were more likely to recognize intergroup resource inequality based on an internal factor and to rectify the intergroup inequality based on a structural factor. This is different from previous research findings on resource inequality between individuals indicating that children aged 3–8 years old can distinguish resource inequality based on internal or structural factors in resource allocation (

On the basis of previous studies on intergroup resource inequality, this study distinguished the impact of different origins of intergroup resource inequality on children’s resource allocation and shows that origins of intergroup resource inequality play an important role in children’s intergroup allocation. There are some limitations in this study. First, this study was to explore children’s responses to intergroup inequality, and children were required to allocate resources to members of a group. Though children did consider group characteristics in their justification for allocation, we cannot completely rule out the possibility that in the process of resource allocation, some children may consider both group and individual characteristics. Similarly, when intergroup inequality was based on a structural factor, we made it clear to children that the reason for inequality is due to differences in economic levels between regions. They mostly mentioned the regions and their rich or poor conditions as a whole from children’s justification (for example, “Beijing is richer” and “there are fewer resources in Li Village”). We believe that children do consider structural factors, but we cannot rule out the possibility that they may also consider other related factors simultaneously. Future research can examine whether children can understand inequality based on structural factors more specifically. Second, in this study, only two age groups of children (5–6 and 10–11 years old) were recruited, and the development trend of children’s intergroup allocation behavior could not be examined. Future studies can track the developmental trajectories of children’s intergroup allocation in the same context using a longitudinal design. Third, this study used minimal groups to control the influence of children’s past interactive experiences, which might have caused children’s lower levels of identification with the ingroup. Future studies can examine actual social groups. Finally, participants in this study were all recruited from the same kindergarten or elementary school in Beijing, and thus, their socioeconomic status and development experiences were relatively similar. Future research can recruit children from different socioeconomic backgrounds to obtain a more comprehensive understanding of children’s recognition of intergroup inequality in different social environments.

In summary, the study shows that origins of intergroup resource inequality affect children’s resource allocation. Younger children (5–6 years old) perpetuated intergroup resource inequality when it was based on internal or structural factors. Older children (10–11 years old) can distinguish different origins of intergroup resource inequality. They perpetuated intergroup inequality when it was based on an internal factor but they were more likely to rectify inequality that was based on a structural factor. Understanding children’s recognition of preexisting intergroup resource inequality and its origins may have important implications for education programs that aim to reduce social inequality and promote social justice.

The raw data supporting the conclusions of this article will be made available by the authors, without undue reservation.

The studies involving human participants were reviewed and approved by the ethics committee of the Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Written informed consent to participate in this study was provided by the participants’ legal guardian/next of kin.

JA and LZ designed the experiments. JA collected and analyzed the data. JA, JY, and LZ wrote the manuscript. All authors contributed to the article and approved the submitted version.

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.