The Situationist

The Young and the Lucky

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 27, 2007


In the March/April 2007 Harvard Magazine , Harbour Fraser Hodder summarizes research by social psychologists Kristina Olson, (Situationist Contributor) Mahzarin Banaji, Elizabeth Spelke, and Carol Dweck, on how children understand and respond to social inequality. Among other findings, the researchers have shown that children seem to favor the lucky to the unlucky – the “lucky effect.” Hodder’s brief article, from which the remainder of this post draws, provides a terrific summary:

Pretend that you’re five years old. A grownup in a white coat tells you about Jane, who found $5 on the sidewalk; Johnny, who was splashed by a passing car; Jim, who helped his mom bake a cake; and Sue, who took a toy from her little brother. After each story the grownup asks, “How much do you like Jane [or Johnny, or Jim, or Sue]?” To answer, you must point to a large frowning face (really don’t like) or a large smiling face (really like) or one of four in-between faces. Which face would you pick?

If you’re like the 32 five- to seven-year-olds in a recent study of bias in children, you’ll surprise everyone with how much more you prefer the lucky to the unlucky kids. As expected, you’ll also know the difference between doing something good or bad on purpose and having something good or bad happen by accident. And you’ll like the kids who intentionally did a good thing over those who did something bad even more than you like the lucky ones. But your preference for more fortunate peers will nevertheless be part of a “whoppingly big” effect, according to doctoral candidate in psychology Kristina Olson, lead author for the research published in Psychological Science. “I don’t think any of us expected the ‘lucky effect’ to be that large.”

Kristina Olson - Photo by Stephanie Mitchell for HU

Would such bias spread to new members of a group experiencing fortune or misfortune? “How might seeing news of Hurricane Katrina influence kids’ perceptions of black people who are living in Ohio?” asks Olson. To begin testing this issue, she and her coauthors and advisers—Cabot professor of social ethics and Pforzheimer professor at Radcliffe Mahzarin Banaji, Berkman professor of psychology Elizabeth Spelke, and Carol Dweck, Ransford professor of psychology at Stanford—conducted a second study. Here 43 five- to seven-year-olds “meet” cartoon children with nearly identical facial expressions but different T-shirt colors. Three of the blue-T kids are lucky (e.g., putting money into a candy machine and getting two candy bars), and three of the green-T kids are unlucky (e.g., riding in the car when it breaks down). The other two in each group simply like to eat oatmeal or ride a bike. Then two new kids appear on screen wearing blue and green shirts but without further description. “Who do you like more?”

The results were “even more shocking” than those of the first study, says Olson. The children “were overwhelmingly more likely to prefer the member of the group that had experienced lucky events, despite the fact that this person did not experience a lucky or unlucky event as far as they knew, and despite the fact that group membership wasn’t perfectly predictive of whether they’d experience a lucky or unlucky event,” she explains.

Katrina Victims (from ethical reasons, Olson and her colleagues chose trivial events to begin their research; they don’t know if children would extend these preferences to more extreme events such as Hurricane Katrina. In such cases, Olson can imagine that “either kids’ evaluations become more extreme, or ideas like empathy come into play and they think, ‘Wait a minute, that’s terrible. How can I help?’”

The lucky effect, notes Olson, could prove to be “one of the early seeds” of system justification, the controversial theory (formulated by social psychologist [and Situationist Contributor] John T. Jost, RF ’03, Banaji, and others in the 1990s) that adults are motivated to defend the status quo as fair and legitimate even at the expense of personal or group self-interest. That theory has been cited as a possible explanation for the persistence of social inequality from one generation to the next. As young children observe some groups experiencing greater fortune or misfortune than others, they may decide, “‘They wouldn’t have such good stuff if they didn’t deserve it’ or ‘They wouldn’t have such bad stuff if they didn’t deserve it,’” Olson explains. “In the process of trying to make sense of the world, they may actually come to justify the world as it is. We have some work in progress [that looks] at whether kids not only like the lucky person more, but actually think the lucky person is a better person.”

Might the lucky effect be a vestigial survival instinct? “If we continue to find these preferences across very different cultures and at even younger and younger ages, then there may be more to tell about whether this could have been evolutionarily beneficial, though the data to date cannot yet address this possibility,” acknowledges Olson. Social psychology has shown that adults tend to prefer individuals and groups who are more fortunate. . . . “It turns out that five-year-olds are just as irrational as adults.”

6 Responses to “The Young and the Lucky”

  1. Doug S. said

    Sometimes it’s really hard to tell the difference between unearned success and earned success – and unearned success is still success that could potentially be shared with you. I imagine a preference for “lucky” people could be also interpreted as a preference for successful people.

  2. Thanks for the link to the article. I’ll make a dangerous comment, given that I’ve not yet read it, but the impression that I get from your precis is that this has nothing to do with attributions of luck. Instead, it is just about preferences for persons who possess resources, and a disinclination towards those who do not have resources. Expectations of sharing or benefits of association might also come into play.

    It would be interesting to design a study to compare attitudes about ‘desert’ and ‘good fortune’: a child’s attitude to one who finds money on the street, another who receives it as a gift, another who receives it as a reward for ‘good character’, and another who received it in payment for labour.

    To disambiguate finding money from merit (because finding might just be about good hunting skills) perhaps a ‘falling from the sky’ case might offer a better insight into attitudes about luck.

    One last point: the results may be coloured by empathy and mirroring effects. A child might simply be more likely to point to an unhappy face when they see unhappy people, in which case their signal has nothing to do with whether or not they like the people.

    And that is entirely too much to say without reading the article itself… Treat these as anticipatory speculations.

    Thanks again for the link to the research.

  3. A follow up – on second thought, the ‘falling from the sky’ example might not be a good one. It might invoke ideas of divine beneficence.

  4. kabababrubarta said

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  5. […] other writings on The Situationist that examine empathy, see “March Madness” and “The Young and the Lucky. And, for a sample of postings looking at situational influences on ethics, see […]

  6. […] fascinating research has been the subject of previous Situationist posts (including “The Young and the Lucky,” and “The Perils of Being Smart (or Not So Much”). This post compliments those posts as well […]

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