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November 9, 2006

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Olson with research subject Brooke Shachoy (6)
Graduate student Kristina Olson, pictured here in William James Hall with Brooke Shachoy (age 6), was the lead author on the study. (Staff photo Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office)

Children are attracted to the fortunate more than the unfortunate

By Steve Bradt
FAS Communications

Children as young as 5 prefer lucky individuals over the less fortunate, according to new research by psychologists at Harvard and Stanford University. This phenomenon, the researchers say, could clarify the origins of human attitudes toward differing social groups and help explain the persistence of social inequality.

The work, by Kristina R. Olson and her colleagues, is published in the latest issue of the journal Psychological Science.

"The hand of fate touches us all," says Olson, a Harvard graduate student in psychology, "Hurricanes strike some houses and spare others, lotteries are won and lost, and children are born into wealthy and poor families. We set out to study how children make sense of random events, such as Hurricane Katrina, and how they feel about the people affected by such random events. Understanding how children think about others who experience luck or misfortune can provide a window into the origins of attitudes and preferences toward social groups that vary in privilege."

Olson and her colleagues tested 32 children's preferences among advantaged versus disadvantaged individuals. Their study also differentiated between events that occurred by chance and those that followed some intentional act. Thus, the youngsters were asked to evaluate actors in four types of scenarios: intentional and positive (such as a child who helped the teacher), intentional and negative (such as a child who lied to his or her mother), uncontrollable and positive (such as a child who found $5 on the sidewalk), or uncontrollable and negative (such as a child whose soccer game got rained out).

The children responded to 10 scenarios, rating how much they liked the child in each on a scale of 1 to 6. Not surprisingly, children showed a preference for intentional good actors (average score = 5.2) over intentional bad actors (average score = 1.7). But they also showed a striking preference for beneficiaries of uncontrollable good events (average score = 4.8) over victims of uncontrollable bad events (average score = 3.2). The children distinguished between intentional and uncontrollable events, showing a preference for uncontrollable bad actors over intentional bad actors, but only a marginal preference for intentional good actors over uncontrollable good actors.

"If the children were equally disposed toward the lucky and the unlucky, you would expect equivalent opinions of individuals affected by both positive and negative random events," Olson notes. "The discrepancy in opinions of the beneficiaries of good luck versus the victims of bad luck indicates that children prefer fortunate individuals over unfortunate individuals."

A second experiment by Olson and her colleagues investigated whether this preference for the lucky spreads to new members of a group. Forty-three children were introduced to two five-member groups distinguished only by their shirt color and location on a computer screen. Three members of one group were described as beneficiaries of uncontrollable positive events, whereas three members of the other group were described as the victims of uncontrollable negative events.

Subjects were then introduced to a new member of each group and were asked which they liked more. The children were more likely to prefer new individuals who belonged to the mostly lucky group, despite the fact that they had no knowledge of the new member other than an arbitrary group affiliation based on shirt color.

"Our experiments show the difficulties that confront youngsters as they make judgments of those touched by luck or misfortune," Olson says. "Young children express stronger liking for the beneficiaries of good luck compared to the victims of bad luck and generalize this preference to those who share membership in a group. Because the disadvantaged are more likely to experience negative events beyond their control - such as the tendency for the poor to be most impacted by natural disasters - this innocuous preference for the privileged may eventually grow more harmful, further increasing negativity toward the disadvantaged. Such preferences may, in turn, help explain the persistence of social inequality."

Olson's co-authors on the Psychological Science paper are Mahzarin R. Banaji and Elizabeth S. Spelke of Harvard's Department of Psychology and Carol S. Dweck of Stanford. Their work was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Beinecke Scholarship at Harvard, and the Third Millennium Foundation.



Copyright 2006 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College