“The influence of adult and peer role models on children’ and adolescents’ sharing decisions”: Sample selection and the importance of research context

Four children holding hands

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Journal article: Ruggeri, A., Luan, S., Keller, M., & Gummerum, M. (2018). The influence of adult and peer role models on children’ and adolescents’ sharing decisions. Child development, 89(5), 1589-1598.

Ruggeri et al. (2018) are interested in the sharing decisions of Italian and Singaporean children and adolescents, examining – through an adapted dictator game with the use of a comic character, so as to experimentally study how the participants think goods should be shared – the influence of peers versus adults and of fair versus unfair suggestions. And while the unsurprising findings still offer useful insights to educators and practitioners who work with young people, there should also be greater attention on sample selection and the importance of research context.

Among a sample of 9- and 12-year-olds – 184 participants from Italy and 181 from Singapore – they studied how the children and adolescents solicited and followed the suggestions of others through the aforementioned experiment:

“The experiment took place in the classroom. All students in one classroom were tested together. However, participants were encouraged to work individually and privately. Participants were first given a short comic strip to read that presents … “Jacky” (Singaporean sample), a character of unspecified gender and of similar age to the participants. In the comic, Jacky is given 10 chocolates by a second character – the model. The model, either a peer or an adult, asks Jacky to decide how to share the 10 chocolates with a friend and suggests how to share them.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of four experimental conditions, resulting from the combination of two independent variables: (a) the age of the model (adult vs. peer), with the peer model designed to look of similar age to Jacky and the participants; and (b) the model’s suggestion, either fair (“If I were you, I would give half of them . . . I think it would be fair!”) or unfair (“If I were you, I would keep them all . . . nobody will know!”). After reading the comic, participants were asked to write down privately how many of the 10 chocolates they wanted to keep and how many they wanted to give away” (p. 1591-1592).

Based on the age of the model, the 9-year-olds were more likely to be influenced by an adult, whereas the 12-year-olds were more likely to be influenced by a peer. The obvious implication is that age matters in the promotion of equality and fairness: “Parent and teacher models could work better for younger children, whereas peer models might have more impact on adolescents” (p. 1595). Based on the model’s suggestion or fairness or unfairness, participants shared more under the fair suggestion condition, though Ruggeri et al. (2018) highlighted a purportedly interesting cultural difference between Italian and Singaporean adolescents:

“Yet, whereas Italian 12-year-olds were indifferent to the adult model’s suggestions, Singaporean adolescents displayed a seemingly “anti-adult” attitude: They were less generous when the adult model suggested fair sharing and vice versa. This contradicts the idea (and our hypothesis) that East Asian children and adolescents would be more obedient to adult authorities than their western peers” (p. 1595).

However, there could be other explanations too, which relate to the limitations of the study. First, there are questions surrounding the comparability of the Italian and Singaporean samples based on demographics, other socio-economic factors, and family background. In the context of the school – since the experiment was conducted within classrooms – the academic performance or history of the students could be critical too. Second, the distinction between children and adolescents in the Singaporean context could also be challenged. Both 9- and 12-year-olds in the country are still in primary school. It could be argued that socialisation and the influence of peers versus adults would differ significantly when primary and secondary schools are compared.

Finally, future studies should not be premised upon a single time point per se, but how sharing decisions vary as one ages. In this vein, researchers could potentially consider the influence of both time and environment. In terms of the environment: Besides the classroom, other sites within the school could include co-curricular activities, volunteer events, and leadership clubs. Outside the school, community organisations and other enrichment initiatives may be considered as sites for the experiment.

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