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Exposure to economic inequality at the age of 8 enhances prosocial behaviour in adult life

Brañas-Garza, Pablo and Caldentey, Pedro and Espín, Antonio M. and Garcia, Teresa and Hernández, Ana (2020): Exposure to economic inequality at the age of 8 enhances prosocial behaviour in adult life.

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Children as young as 3-4 years old are already concerned about inequality and declare that equality is a norm that should be followed.1 At the age of 3 to 8, they develop a strong preference for equality, which is typically reflected in both “envy” and “compassion”,2,3 that is, aversion to disadvantageous and advantageous inequality, respectively.4 Further studies suggest that inequality aversion does not continue increasing after that age, but rather exhibits an inverse-U shape relation with age in childhood and adolescence, with a peak at 8 years old.3,5 Since children are particularly sensitive to inequality at the age of 8, it is an open question how exposure to real economic inequality at this age modulates prosocial behaviour in adult life. Here, we link generosity in dictator game experiments conducted among Spanish university students (n > 400) with existing macro-level data on income inequality within the region they lived as children. The data show that individuals who were exposed to higher levels of inequality at the age of 8 are more generous in adult life. Interestingly, exposure at older ages has no impact on generosity. Our results extend previous findings on the development of egalitarianism by showing long-lasting effects of childhood inequality experiences in adult life. If prosocial behaviour is (partly) developed as a reaction to an unequal environment, then inequality might be counteracted in the future.

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