Want a fairer society? Invest in the early years, research says

by Freya Lucas

November 21

Adults who received targeted educational support in their early life are fairer people even 40 years after the interventions took place, researchers from the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTCRI) have found.

 

The researchers discovered that those participating in the study displayed higher levels of fairness in social interactions than their peers, even when that fairness came at a high personal cost.

 

The findings, published yesterday in Nature Communications, describe researchers working with 78 participants from the Abecedarian Project, one of the most well-known and longest running studies of the effects of early childhood education and interventions for low-income families.

 

“Our research shows investment in early childhood education, especially in the education of highly vulnerable children from low-income families, can produce long-term effects in decision-making even decades after the educational experience,” said Ms Luo.

 

The Abecedarian researchers investigated whether an intensive early childhood educational intervention could produce significant benefits in language and learning in disadvantaged children.

 

Participants in the VTCRI research were asked to take part in economic games which measured social norm reinforcement and future planning during social decision making. The participants were joined by an additional 252 adults who had not received any childhood interventions, to act as a control group.

 

All participants were invited to take part in an economic game to split $20. One player decides how to split the money. The research participants could either accept the amount proposed, or reject it, in which case no one receives any money. Receiving unequal offers sets up a context in which they have to make trade-offs between self-interest and the enforcement of social norms of equality.

 

Abecedarian players who received intensive, five-year educational intervention including cognitive and social stimulation when they were young children in the 1970s, strongly rejected unequal division of money across players, even if it meant they would miss out on large financial gains themselves.

 

“When someone rejects an offer, they are sending a very strong signal to the other player about the decision regarding how the money should be divided,” said Sébastien Hétu, co-first author of the VTCRI study.

 

“People who received educational training through the Abecedarian Project were inclined to accept generally equal offers, but would reject disadvantageous and advantageous offers, in effect punishing transgressions that they judged to be outside of the social norm of equality.”

 

Using computational modelling, researchers discovered differences in social decision-making strategies between the control group, and those who had received intervention in early childhood. For example, participants who received educational interventions planned further into the future in another economic game.

 

“The participants who received early educational interventions were very sensitive to inequality, whether it was to their advantage or disadvantage. Our results also suggest that they placed more value in the long-term benefits of promoting social norms as opposed to short-term benefits from personal gains,” said Yi Luo, first author of the research.

 

“Our research shows investment in the early childhood education, especially in the education of highly vulnerable children from low-income families, can produce long-term effects in decision-making even decades after the educational experience,” said Ms Luo.

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