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.