How do risk and time preferences develop across cultures?

Dating back to the Marshmallow Task of the 1970s, psychologists have long been interested in the development of patience and impulsivity among children. However, the vast majority of work on this topic has been conducted entirely among Western children, who live in very different environments than most other children in the world. In this study, we wanted to investigate how time preferences — how much you value the present over the future — and risk preferences — how much you value guaranteed rewards over riskier ones — develop across different environments. To explore this question, we created two novel games for children to play. In the time task, children are offered choices between candy they can eat today versus candy they have to wait for tomorrow to eat. In the risk task, children are offered the choice between a guaranteed reward and one that is less likely but generally greater in value.


In order to understand how different environments may lead to different preferences, we conducted this study among American children in New Haven, Toba children in Argentina, Indian schoolchildren in Gujarat,  and indigenous Shuar children in Amazonian Ecuador.

We find that across all four countries, children are sensitive to reward outcome, generally preferring the tomorrow reward or risky reward as the reward amount increases. However, we also find interesting cross-cultural differences.

When it comes to risk preferences, children in India, the US, and Argentina tend to prefer the risky options, while Shuar children overwhelmingly prefer the safe options. Risk preferences also show an interesting developmental pattern, with India, American, and Argentinian children starting out risk-seeking and eventually becoming more risk-averse, while Shuar children start out risk-averse and generally become more risk-seeking.

We see an interesting pattern in time preferences as well.  We find that all children become more patient with age. However, we again see a pattern such that children from India, the US, and Argentina group together, generally preferring tomorrow rewards, while Shuar children consolidate candy so that they have it either all today or all tomorrow.

These findings are the first to highlight that cross-cultural differences in risk preferences and time preferences exist, and that they can be traced into childhood. Deploying a cross-cultural perspective can help us better understand the diversity of cognitive development in the world and begin to assess which environmental cues may be important in promoting this variability.

Children’s Evaluations of Free Riders

We often engage in group activities in life (e.g., a potluck dinner), which can only be successful if everyone contributes to it. But individuals might be tempted to free ride--to benefit without contributing (e.g., bringing no food to the potluck). We are interested in how children evaluate free riders--is it OK to free ride, since other members may share the responsibility and contributing to the group should be a voluntary choice?

We presented 4-10-year-olds stories about group activities, in which the group will get a bigger reward (e.g., a bigger cake) if more members donate their belongings (e.g., chocolate). Three of the members contribute but one free ride. We found that even the youngest children viewed the free rider as bad and disliked him compared to contributors.

In two different stories, we also changed the outcome (i.e., the group got the biggest reward despite the presence of the free rider) or the number of free riders (i.e., half of the group free ride), but young children still negatively evaluated the free riders, suggesting it is the intentional act of free riding that children dislike.

These results provide strong evidence that we negatively evaluate free riders from early in life. The robust aversion to free riding may deter the occurrence of these behaviors and thus could be an important mechanism to support group-level cooperation.

Why do we like members of our groups?

Our society is organized in many different groups, such as classroom groups, sports teams or circles of friends. We have a very strong tendency to form groups with others and take these groups very seriously. Even when we have never met our group members before, we tend to like them more than members of other groups. For example, already at the beginning of a new school year, children often prefer their classmates to the children who go to other classrooms or schools.   

In this study, we investigate the origins of this phenomenon. One possibility is that this tendency helps us to get ready to work together with our group members. To test this hypothesis, children are allocated into one of two color groups and are told that they will now play with their group members.  In the experimental condition, due to "technical problems", the child cannot play with the in-group members, but has to collaborate with children from the other group instead. We then measure whether children's preference for their own group persists, or whether their preference shifted to their outgroup members to prepare them for the upcoming collaboration.