Paper Review: Cooley and Killen (in press): Children’s Evaluations of Resource Allocation in the Context of Group Norms

Cooley, S., & Killen, M. (in press). Children’s evaluations of resource allocation in the context of group norms. Developmental Psychology.

What do you do when your group has a norm for fairness and equality, and someone in your group advocates for inequality that would benefit the group? Extant research shows that, for very young children, equality trumps all other values, including group loyalty and ingroup bias but that, as we get older, peer relations, existing resources, and a whole host of other factors will come into play (e.g., Blake & McAuliffe, 2011). In their paper, Cooley and Killen deal with the tension between moral values and ingroup bias, in a kindergarten setting. Children, aged three and a half to six years were asked to give their opinion of a classmate [deviant] who either (a) advocated for unequal shares of building blocks when the class had a norm for equal sharing, or (b) advocated for equal sharing of building blocks when the class had a norm for sharing the blocks in its favour (i.e., giving itself more blocks). What happened?

Cooley and Killen report that most children had a dim view of children who went against the class norm by dividing things unequally, even when it benefitted their class; they explained their opinion in terms of the importance of fairness. However, participants who appreciated those classmates who shared resources in the class’s favour reasoned about group functioning and the group benefits . With age, children displayed increasing social group nous by differentiating their own opinion of the classmate who runs counter to class norms from their expectations of the group’s likely opinion of this classmate.

This research finding is notable for several reasons. Previous research looking at fairness and peer relations in this age group had done so  in terms of dyads. For example, Olson and Spelke (2008) found that found that three and a half year-olds allocated equal resources to puppet friend dyads more often than to non-friend dyads. And, Paulus and Moore (2014) demonstrated that preschool aged children expected a person to share more with a friend than a disliked peer. More often, however, children’s experiences of peer relations are packaged in terms of groups. Children learn about group identities, like gender and ethnicity from the preschool years, and a plethora of research has shown how these categories shape their opinions of others, as well as their choices of playmate and classroom behaviour (for a review see Bennett & Sani, 2004). This research paper speaks to group processes.

And this research is more “real” than its predecessors. Often such research makes use of  a minimal group paradigm (where judgements of others and resource allocation are based solely on group membership) where the minimal groups are contrived at random,  at the start of the study. Here, children made judgements about their membership class (be it for example the red class), and an outgroup [orange] class. These were actual classes in their school and judgements were made on the basis of a photo’ board of the real class. However, judgements seem to have been made about a fictional member of the class. So, there was no prior knowledge of that individual characteristics about them, upon which judgements could have been based. The study also measured children’s identification with their class (as opposed to simple liking for it). Unfortunately, identification ratings were not then factored into any of the analyses  – and like me, they didn’t measure outgroup identification (oh, to have Dr. Hindsight as a colleague) –  but identification was measured – and found to be high – which is good.


The red room and the orange room from Cooley and Killen (in press) Developmental Psychology


It was interesting to note that the authors found no difference between opinions of the counter-normative classmate, depending on whether he was a member of the child’s class, or another class (e.g., the red class or the orange class). This is interesting to note because it is at odds with literature on the black sheep effect. (e.g., Abrams, Rutland, & Cameron, 2003, Abrams et al., 2013). Such research  tells us that ingroup members think ingroup deviants, like the classmate in these scenarios, should be treated more severely than outgroup deviants, for the same norm-transgression: it is possible that this is because behaving in line with, or in favour of, outgroup members represents more of a threat, than simply not following the group rules. Yet, the authors state,

 ” participants viewed it just as wrong for an ingroup member to deviate from an equal group norm as it was for an outgroup member to do so” (p. 9).

This is worthy of further investigation. It is possible that this null finding is due to  the classes’ actual existence, as opposed to research where this finding is detected in minimal group settings. There again, maybe the black sheep effect itself, in children at least, is an artefact of the minimal group paradigm….It would be worth controlling for this – and also for the “reality” of the colour-coded groupings, which may carry unknown histories or status differentials. As a case in point, when I was in Reception class (UK aged 4-5 years) I was in the red group. There was also a yellow group , a green group, and a blue group – in other words, a rainbow. And the red group were the best at reading, then yellow, and so on. And as 4 year-olds, we all knew this to be the case, even though groupings weren’t used by the teachers to make this clear to us…

A further potential avenue for future exploration surrounds the initial creation, and ingroup knowledge of the ingroup norm – which is unsourced, so far as I can tell. Who is the classmate who deviates transgressing against? The class as a whole, or their teacher, or an aggregate of past exchanges (as seems to be inferred “your group like to….”?) How is this class norm knowledge obtained? Is it displayed prominently in the classroom as a prescriptive norm, or is it a descriptive norm for class action (cf. Hitti et al., 2013). One might also ask at what level the norm of  “equality” is important to the children. If the red class already had ten building blocks, and the orange class none, would they still want to divide new blocks equally? What reasons beyond group functioning could be given a priori to the children for unequal allocation of resources? What if the classmate deviant wanted to address an existing inequality in resource allocation – giving less to the ingroup? Is equality-in-the-moment, or absolute equality what matters?

Further interesting questions remain, now that Cooley and Killen have brought this finding into the group domain. Children were asked whether the class/they as participants would like / want to be friends with the deviant classmate. This leads me to wonder what the effect of the class actively friending or de-friending versus individually friending or de-friending the deviant might be? How would this manifest itself in the classroom(s)?  What does to like/dislike or friend/not-friend a child look like to the children? How would they expect the deviant child to respond? Does the outgroup class know of this like/dislike ? What do they make of it? And, in the case of ingroup deviant dislike, are the boundaries between the [sic] red and orange classrooms permeable? Can children move classes? Would the outgroup class be more likely to accept an ingroup deviant into their fold?  Would the children, given the option, suggest that this should be the case, rather than dislike or de-friending (reported based on the forced choice they were given)?

This research suggests that children aged three and a half to six years privilege equality over group functioning – recognizing differences between their opinions and the likely consensus of the group, as they age. The best kind of research asks more questions than it answers, and this is undoubtedly the case here.There is so much we still have to find out about children’s moral reasoning as group members.


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