ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2013, Vol. 45 ›› Issue (11): 1242-1250.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2013.01242

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From Understanding to Utilizing: Theory of Mind and Children’s Distributive Justice in Different Contexts

WANG Si;SU Yanjie   

  1. (Department of Psychology, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China)
  • Received:2013-01-14 Published:2013-11-25 Online:2013-11-25
  • Contact: SU Yanjie


Distributive justice is the core content of children’s moral development. Its development describes a child’s progressive understanding and application of what constitutes fairness during resource distribution. Previous work has suggested that younger children often allocate rewards in a self-interest centered manner as a result of limited cognitive abilities. However, recent studies have indicated that 3- to 5-year-old children could perform fair distribution, even infants hold the expectation of resource allocation according to one's effort. Incidentally, the dual-process theory emphasized that there are two different underlying processes of children’s distributive justice: the automatic emotional process and the controlled cognitive process. Given that children should first attribute others’ beliefs and intents, and hereafter take account of each person’s contributions through understanding and making use of high-level distributive justice principles, Theory of Mind (ToM) may participate an important role during this procedure. Based on current understandings, in order to get a clear overview of distributive justice development and its underlying mechanisms, this study aims in investigating how children’s Theory of Mind affect the two aspects of distributive justice (distributive justice judgment and distributive justice behavior) in the involved and uninvolved contexts. Experiment 1 focused on the relationship between Theory of Mind and children’s distributive justice judgment in two different contexts (involved and uninvolved). 61 preschool participants aged from 4- to 5- participated in the Giving Game and 40 adult participants completed the Giving Game Context Questionnaire. The results from the uninvolved context indicated that judgments made by children who passed the Theory of Mind tasks were similar to the judgments by the adults’, and both Theory of Mind and uninvolved context promoted children’s distributive justice judgment. Experiment 2 explored the question of how Theory of Mind affected children’s resource distributing behavior using distributive justice principles. This study compared the influence of Theory of Mind of 61 4- to 5-year-old children’s distributive justice behavior in the involved context, with the impact under uninvolved context. The results showed that there was an interaction between Theory of Mind and the involvement of distribution context. Under involved context, children who passed Theory of Mind tasks performed much more fairly than the children who didn't pass; whereas in uninvolved context there were no group differences. Together, these two experiments associated a link of how children would understand distributive justice principles, and how they could use in allocating resources. On the basis of the whole structure, Theory of Mind may have stable and context-sensitive impact on children’s distributive justice. This brought support to the dual-process theory, where automatic emotional process is dominant under involved context, while controlled cognitive process is guiding the uninvolved context. These results provided enriched evidence for current researches and brought new perspectives for future studies. Meanwhile, we can improve children’s development of distributive justice by strengthening their Theory of Mind abilities over training, which is valuable for educational purposes.

Key words: children, distributive justice, theory of mind, involvement