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Humans have a deeply rooted sense of fairness, but its emotional foundation in early ontogeny remains poorly understood. Here, we asked if and when 4- to 10-year-old children show negative social emotions, such as shame or guilt, in response to advantageous unfairness expressed through a lowered body posture (measured using a Kinect depth sensor imaging camera). We found that older, but not younger children, showed more negative emotions, i.e. a reduced upper body posture, after unintentionally disadvantaging a peer on (4,1) trials than in response to fair (1,1) outcomes between themselves and others. Younger children, in contrast, expressed more negative emotions in response to the fair (1,1) split than in response to advantageous inequity. No systematic pattern of children's emotional responses was found in a non-social context, in which children divided resources between themselves and a non-social container. Supporting individual difference analyses showed that older children in the social context expressed negative emotions in response to advantageous inequity without directly acting on this negative emotional response by rejecting an advantageously unfair offer proposed by an experimenter at the end of the study. These findings shed new light on the emotional foundation of the human sense of fairness and suggest that children's negative emotional response to advantageous unfairness developmentally precedes their rejection of advantageously unfair resource distributions.

Original publication




Journal article


R Soc Open Sci

Publication Date





Kinect, body posture, fairness, inequity aversion, social emotions