Working Paper

Exposure to economic inequality at the age of 8 enhances prosocial behavior in adult life


Children as young as 3-4 years are already concerned about inequality and declare that equality is a norm that should be followed. From 3 to 8 years they develop a strong preference for equality, which is typically reflected in both “envy” and “compassion”, that is, aversion to disadvantageous and advantageous inequality, respectively4. Further studies suggest that inequality aversion does not continue increasing after that age, but rather exhibit an inverse-U shape relation with age in childhood and adolescence, with a peak at 8 years old. Since children are particularly sensitive to inequality at the age of 8, it is an open question how exposure to real economic inequality at this age modulates prosocial behaviour in adult life. Here we link generosity in dictator game experiments conducted among Spanish university students (n>400) with existing macro-level data on income inequality within their region when they were children. The data show that individuals who were exposed to higher levels of inequality at the age of 8 are more generous in adult life. Interestingly, exposure at older ages has no impact on generosity. Our results extend previous findings on the development of egalitarianism by showing long-lasting effects of childhood inequality experience into adult life. If prosocial behaviour is (partly) developed as a reaction to an unequal environment then, in the future, inequality might be counteracted.