Researchers have found that, more than 40 years later, the children from low-income families that participated in the Abecedarian Project study grew up to become adults that treat others with high levels of fairness. This is true even when being fair comes at a high personal cost.

The 78 children, now adults, that participated in the 1970s study have been followed as part of one of the longest running randomized-controlled studies of the effects that early education has in low-income families. The Abecedarian Project was a randomized control study of the potential benefits of early-childhood education in children from low-income families. Four groups of children, born between 1972 and 1977, were randomly assigned as infants to either an intervention group or a control group. The intervention group received full-time, high-quality education in a childcare setting from infancy through age five. The educational activities were designed in the form of games that they incorporated into the child’s day, and worked on the social, emotional, and cognitive areas of development –with a particular emphasis on language. Follow-up studies were conducted when the subjects reached 12, 15, 21, 30, and now 40 years after the study, showing long-lasting benefits associated with the early childhood program. 

As adults, the participants were asked to play games designed to measure their adherence to social norms and their decision-making processes. For example, in one game, a participant was asked to split 20 dollars with another participant. The participant could either accept or reject the amount proposed; if he or she rejected it though, neither one of them got any money. That’s how, when faced with this dilemma, participants had to decide between fulfilling their self-interest or following the social norms of equality. Players who had been part of the Abecedarian project strongly rejected unequal division of money between participants. “People who received educational training through the Abecedarian Project were inclined to accept generally equal offers, but would reject disadvantageous and advantageous offers. In effect, they punished transgressions that they judged to be outside of the social norm of equality”, said Sébastien Hétu, a first-author of this study.

It’s extraordinary to see the impact of high-quality early childhood interactions, and it’s something that has been proven over and over again. This is especially true for children from low-income families, who are normally exposed to more stressful situations and less nourishing and engaging experiences than other children. With this study, we can see that even 40 years later, an intervention like this has an effect on people’s decision-making and the way they treat others.

  • Luo, Y., Hétu, S., Lohrenz, T., Hula, A., Dayan, P., Ramey, S. L., . . . Ramey, C. (2018). Early childhood investment impacts social decision-making four decades later. Nature Communications, 9(1). doi:10.1038/s41467-018-07138-5