Student Well-Being

Preschool Lessons in Fairness May Last a Long Time, Study Finds

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 21, 2018 2 min read
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“Play fair” may be one of the earliest lessons of preschool—perhaps even before the ABCs and 123s—and a new study suggests cementing that skill early can make for more just adults decades later.

A new study in the journal Nature Communications looks at students who participated in the landmark Abecedarian project, a large longitudinal study of pre-K programs in North Carolina in the 1970s. Participating students in the original study were randomly assigned to either a control group that received basic food, health care, and family social support, or an intervention group that received five years of intensive academic and social skills instruction. The current follow-up study, led by Yi Luo, a postdoctoral associate in the laboratory of Read Montague’s Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, suggests that experience may prime them to take a more just approach to social situations.

In the study, 42 of the original 111 Abecedarian intervention students (now in their 40s), 36 of the original Abecedarian control group, and a new control group of 220 similar adults from the nearby city of Roanoke, Va., who had not received early-childhood education played the “ultimatum game.” It’s a common test in economics and psychology in which one player is given $20 and decides how to split it with another player. The second player can accept or reject the deal; if it is rejected, neither player gets any money. In this study, the offers were randomly generated by a computer algorithm rather than by another player.

Over time, research has found that players often walk away from an unfair split like $16/$4 if it benefits the other person, but accept the split if it benefits them—and players in the control group followed this trend. But former Abecedarian students were significantly more likely than others to reject offers that were unfair to either side—even when that meant turning down a a big share of the money.

In fact, the more money offered to former Abecedarian students in an unfair exchange, the more likely they were to reject it. “Since rejecting offers in the [game] is akin to punishing the proposer, this rejection pattern can be considered a strong social signal aimed at enforcing equality during exchanges,” the researchers wrote. They suggested early childhood experiences may have led to a stronger belief in reciprocity, making the former Abecedarian students focus less on immediate benefits of an unfair split and more on the need to “pay back” a favorable split later.

The Abecedarian project is one of the most rigorous and longest-running studies of the immediate and long-term effects of high-quality preschools, and follow-up studies have found benefits for students in terms of their college-going and choosing tp parent at later ages, among other things. These new findings suggest that some of the earliest preschool lessons in sharing and social-emotional development may also have long-term benefits for students.

Photo Source: Getty
Chart Source: Nature Communications


A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.