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Selected Research Project
Project Title The Heart and Mind of the Social Child: Development of Distributive Justice through Empathy and Theory of Mind
Principal Investigator Dr. Wang Zhenlin
Area of Research Project
Psychological Studies
Project Period
From 6/2012 To 6/2014
  • To understand the mechanism of human competition and cooperation from a developmental perspective;
  • To identify the cognitive and affective factors (i.e., theory of mind and empathy) that influence children’s sharing;
  • To examine the developmental changes and gender differences in children’s sharing behavior, as well as the effect of social economic status and personal attributes, including birth order and number of siblings; and
  • To explore the development of children’s distributive principles based on fairness, respective contribution, and need, and its relationship with theory of mind and empathy development.
Methods Used

In a series of conceptually progressive studies, the project examines the development of the distributive justice of children, its key factors, and the children’s preference of distributive principles. Study 1 develops measurement tools, including parent questionnaire, child behavioral observations in laboratory settings, and child interviews, to determine whether theory of mind and empathy are two independent constructs that both affect children’s competition and cooperation. Study 2 adopts a game paradigm to examine how theory of mind and empathy, along with age, gender, SES, and family characteristics, affect the distributive justice of children. Distributive justice is measured by the percentage the child is willing to share with the use of economic games. In one condition, each child is given 10 units of rewards (candies or stickers) and asked how many he or she would like to share with an anonymous child. In another condition, each child is told that, if the anonymous responder refuses the offer, both the participating child and the responder receive nothing. The experimenter informs the child regarding the responder’s decision after a pretend phone call. Any offer larger than 30% is accepted. The child is allowed to keep his or her rewards at the end of the games. Study 2 also induces the participating children’s theory of mind and empathy to examine the causal relationship between these 2 factors and distributive justice. Study 3 examines children’s adoption of equality, equity, and need principles in distributive justice, and its relationship with empathy and ToM. Preference is determined by the percentage of children who pick the specific principle over another when given choice.


Understanding the distributive justice of children could potentially inform early childhood moral and civic education. Parents and educators will benefit from knowing how children develop other-regarding preference by incorporating such principles into their practice of teaching children sharing, altruism, and justice. Early childhood curriculum should focus both on the cognitive perspective-taking and on the affective perspective-taking of the social child. If group membership is an important factor in children’s cooperation, moral education should emphasize the “sameness” of other people with self (“We help African children because they have the same desires and needs as we do”). When teaching children to cooperate with others, personal attributes such as age, gender, number of siblings, and birth order should be taken into consideration. In a view of individual and global conflicts, the next generation’s distributive justice is vital to both personal and collective prosperity, as well as to political and economical stability. At an interpersonal level, a trustworthy relationship based on other-regarding fairness and altruism promotes well being and harmony. At an international level, sharing global resources fairly and responsively helps to preserve mutually beneficial relationships among countries, protect our environment, and maintain sustainable development..

Biography of Principal Investigator

Dr. Wang Zhenlin joined the Hong Kong Institute of Education in 2007. Trained in early childhood education and developmental psychology, her teaching focuses on the area of human development. She is interested in children’s developing theory of mind and its implication in early childhood education.

Funding Source
General Research Fund