A program designed to improve the life outcomes of children growing up in high-risk environments has had an unexpected spin-off: children who took part are more willing to make a stand for fairness 40 years later. The findings suggest the benefits of early interventions extend beyond the children themselves, to everyone around them.
In the 1960s and 70s great hopes were held for early childhood intervention programs, most famously America's Head Start, to address the cycles of poverty and poor education that many children were born into. When some assessments questioned their long-term effectiveness, however, it was all the justification austerity-minded governments needed to cut back.
Since then, however, some psychologists have continued to track the paths of those who participated, often finding great value in the initial investments. Dr Sébastien Hétu of the Université de Montréal is one of those who has continued the investigations, and for his latest research he looked for effects others have ignored.
The Abecedarian Project gave 57 extremely disadvantaged African-American children an intensive program of intellectual stimulation, improved nutrition, and better health care while very young, and tracked their lives in comparison with 54 control children of matching backgrounds.
Previous studies have found the interventions lead to better income, health, and educational achievement. Hétu recruited Abecedarian graduates to play a game where $20 was split between them and another player. Players could veto a division if they saw it as unfair in which case neither player received money.
In Nature Communications, Hétu reports striking differences between Abecedarians and controls. "People who received educational training through the Abecedarian Project were inclined to accept generally equal offers, but would reject disadvantageous and advantageous offers,” Hétu said in a statement. “In effect, they punished transgressions that they judged to be outside of the social norm of equality."
Notably, those who received the interventions didn't just stand up for themselves – they were just as likely to refuse divisions where they got too much as those where they got too little.
It's hard for a study like this to explain why early intervention makes people fairer, but a hint was found in a multi-round trust game Hétu also had participants play. The Abecedarian beneficiaries were able to plan further ahead, rather than taking the option that looked best in the short term. The paper notes; “Social norm enforcement, which often entails a cost, is thought to be motivated by the fact that it can result in long-term positive effects on cooperation.”
On the other hand, it is possible that receiving an intervention that, at least partially, counteracts the disadvantages the children experienced in the rest of their lives sends the message that a fairer world is possible. Those who have experienced this may have more faith that what they do can make a difference.