What is most Fair?

Things feel fair or unfair. Our emotions play a central role in our perceptions of fairness and how we respond to injustice. fMRI imaging studies of individuals making decisions involving fairness indicate that emotions help determine a person’s attitude towards inequity through involvement of the insula.

The question in a University of Illinois and California Institute of Technology study, “Which is better, giving more food to a few hungry people or letting some food go to waste so that everyone gets a share” finds that most people choose the latter. As a social species, we as individuals are fairly intolerant of inequality.

“One could choose to take 15 meals from a single child, for example, or 13 meals from one child and five from another. In the first option the total number of meals lost would be lower. Efficiency would be preserved, but one child would bear the brunt of all the cuts. In the second option more children would share the burden of lost meals but more meals would be lost. The equity was better — but at a cost to efficiency.” We will see that everyone has a fair share even if it means that the overall resources available to us take a greater hit.

Of note, the decisions were made by individuals who were themselves well-fed and not in danger of starving. When things are going well we tend to favor equity for all. In times of scarcity, danger or other threat, self-preservation instincts tend to override this behavior. In other words, it would seem that we would maintain this pattern of sharing because it feels right until the resources actually started running out.

In a world of growing scarcity and competition for resources this becomes increasingly relevant.

Link: ScienceDaily, Coaching Fairness, Fairness and Feeling Good

2 thoughts on “What is most Fair?”

  1. Relevant indeed, especially coupled with our downward spiraling economy and recent election.

    Wonder how this theory plays out in a political setting?

    Based upon the 2008 election results, our President Elect won promising to take from the top 5% (tax increase) and “spread the wealth” among the other 95% (tax decrease). This seems to indicate a public willingness to waste resources (raising taxes on wealth creation is a disincentive to capital investment hence reduced net tax revenue to the treasury) to gain a more “equitable” distribution resulting in a net loss for all.
    If our economy continues to slide deeper into recession, will overall public opinion shift? If so, which direction?

  2. Precisely and well said. Your example illustrates the concept well. I suspect, as history seems to abundantly illustrate, that any slide into increasing economic suffering will see changes in public opinion that follow Maslow’s well-known hierarchy of increasing focus upon ever more fundamental needs (at least from the individual perspective.) How that will play out in social dynamics could well follow familiar scenario alternatives – conflict vs. cooperation evolving into the rise of dynamic, charismatic individuals who overshadow perceived bureaucratic failure and evolve into personality-based interims.

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