You probably lost the ability to recognize a bad deal before you got into kindergarten. This experiment shows that they’re able to emotionally understand when hard work has earned something that’s not worth having—but it turns out in this instance, four-year-olds are wiser than six=year-olds.

This experiment, conducted by Gonda Brain Research Center, put children to work. They were paid cheaply, with stickers. Sometimes the stickers were earned by easy tasks, sometimes by difficult ones. After the kids earned the stickers they were sometimes asked to voluntarily give stickers to another kid they saw on a video, while some kids were asked to “give” stickers to a box. Most crucially, some of the stickers were awesome, like SpongeBob stickers. Other times, the stickers were of stupid boring things like plants. I mean, plants! I ask you, who could want a plant sticker?

When it came to six-year-olds, it was the work that it took to get the stickers and not the quality of the stickers that mattered. They’d give away 21% of attractive stickers when the stickers were easy to get, but cut their charitable donations by over half and gave only 10% of the hard-to-get SpongeBob stickers. When they got boring old plants, they gave 30% of the easy-to-get stickers away, but only 17% away if they were difficult to get.

In this way, six-year-olds are little adults. Give an adult a difficult task to earn a reward they don’t really want and can’t really use, and they’ll still hold on to their metaphorical boring plant stickers. They can’t admit that the rewards are worthless.

Four-year-olds are different. If they like a sticker, they like a sticker, and they will hold on to the same amount of good stickers whether the stickers are easy or difficult to earn. As for working hard, it makes the four-year-olds even more eager to give away their garbage stickers. Why would they want a plant sticker reminding them of all the effort they went to earn a dumb plant sticker?


Four-year-old kids seem to have slipped the cognitive dissonance trap, in which hard work for a comparatively valueless reward makes people clutch their crappy “reward” all the tighter. They’re still somewhat emotionally involved in the bad rewards, since they’re more eager to get rid of them when they have to work hard. More intriguingly, four-year-olds seem to have some sense of the absolute value of a fair reward. If they feel they have sufficient good stickers, they’re okay with giving some stickers away, whether or not they have to work hard for them. Perhaps we should be more like four-year-olds, reacting with spite towards meager benefits, but not hoarding fair compensation if we have enough for ourselves.

[Source: From Effort to Value: Preschool Children’s Alternative to Effort Justification]

Top Image: Rolands Lakis