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.

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.