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Just Rewards: Children and Adults Equate Accidental Inequity with Intentional Unfairness

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Humans expect resources to be distributed fairly. They also show biases to construe all acts as intentional. This study investigates whether every unequal distribution is initially assumed to be intentional unfairness. Study 1 presents a control group of adults with a movie showing one individual accidentally receiving less reward than expected for a task. The experimental group was shown the same scenario, except that the individual was now in the presence of an additional person who received the full reward. Despite the similarity of the scenarios, as predicted, participants in the control condition responded as if the disappointing reward was accidental, while those in the experimental condition responded as if the act was intentional: Their tendency to avoid the “perpetrator” did not differ from that of participants in another control condition who saw an intentionally unfair reward distribution. In Study 2, 7- and 8-year-old children’s results replicated those of adults. Implications for social and moral cognition are discussed.

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