Humans are inherently social beings. We care not only about material and financial rewards, but also about social status, belonging, and respect. Research studies show that our brains automatically evaluate the fairness of how financial rewards are distributed. We seem to have a happiness response to fair treatment and a disgust or protest response to unfairness. This brain wiring has implications for life happiness, relationship satisfaction, raising kids, and organizational leadership. This article will examine how we define fairness, how your brain processes experiences of fairness and unfairness, and how to cope with life’s unfair moments..
What Is Fairness?
Your perception of fairness may differ, depending on your culture, the situation, or your personal values and preferences. You may define fairness as one or more of the following:
Equity: Everyone is treated the same and has to play by the same rules. Or, everyone gets an equal share of the pie.
Fair Compensation For Effort: Those who work harder or make a more substantial contribution are entitled to a greater share of the proceeds.
Social Good: Those who are at a disadvantage because of poverty, discrimination, or disability are allowed to have some extra help or compensation so as to level the playing field.
Consequences for Acting Unfairly: Those who don’t play by the rules – lie, cheat, or take unfair advantage are punished or banned from the group.
Which definition you choose will depend on your basic values and worldview. Do we have an obligation to look after those who can’t look after themselves? If everyone is given the same reward, is this unfair to those who contributed more? Who gets to decide how resources and responsibilities are delegated? Regardless of how you view fairness, if you are human, you will inevitably be subjected to some behavior or event that you perceive as unfair. And, as you will see below, your brain will have a wired in reaction to this perceived inequity.
How Our Brains Respond to Fairness and Unfairness
Researcher Matthew Lieberman and his colleagues at the University of California Los Angeles have developed a clever paradigm to study our reactions to fair or unfair treatment. Research participants play a game called Ultimatum in which one player (proposer) is given a sum of money (e.g. $10.00) and asked to split it with a second player (target) at a rate that both can agree on. If the target refuses the offer, both get nothing. At the same time, the target’s brain is scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine that can detect dynamic brain processes in real-time.
Pure financial self-interest would suggest that the target accept any offer greater than zero, no matter how unfair. In reality, most people reject offers that are in the unfair range (less than 20-30% of the total). When offered their fair share of the money, reward centers of the target’s brain lit up, specifically the ventral striatum, amygdala, orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VLPFC). These areas are associated with automatic, intuitive reactions, rather than learned responses.
Unfair offers, on the other hand, resulted in activity in the anterior insula – an area associated with contempt or disgust reactions to bad tastes or smells. The more this area lit up, the greater the likelihood of the target rejecting the offer. These results held even when the financial value of the reward was kept constant. In other words, an offer of $2.00 elicited more happiness and fewer aversive reactions when the total amount was $4.00 versus $10.00. In another study, targets were given the opportunity to fine those who made unfair offers (but not get any additional money themselves) and showed activity in the caudate nucleus of the brain when they did this.
These studies remind me of Viktor Frankl’s observations about his concentration camp experiences in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. When beaten by guards or punished severely for no reason or minor infractions, he found the emotional pain and humiliation of unfair treatment almost harder to bear than the physical pain of being beaten. Taken together, these stories and the research results show that unfair treatment seems to be intrinsically aversive and fair treatment inherently pleasurable. Perhaps to our ancestors in tribal times, being treated fairly meant they were accepted by the tribe and would be protected and given access to resources, whereas unfair treatment put their survival at risk – they could get thrown out or not get fed.
How To Cope With Unfairness?
It is a fact of life that we will all be subject to random unpleasantness or obstacles at some point. Whether it’s an umbrella that blows away, a fender bender, a boss who doesn’t see your worth, a sudden illness, or a partner who cheats, you will likely feel unfairly disadvantaged and your brain will start signaling that it’s not happy. If these feelings of victimization are left to fester, you may end up with a clinical depression or become a chronic complainer. It’s better to take a more active approach and evaluate whether the unfair situation is something out of your control or a situation you can do something about and how much energy you want to invest.
Once you have an action plan or decide to just let it go, you can use the following strategies to dampen fruitless ruminations about unfairness:
Change your thinking – life has an element of randomness and uncontrollable suffering that everybody experiences at some point.
Find the lesson in the situation and let the rest go. Maybe you could pay more attention next time or speak up earlier.
Direct compassion to yourself for your suffering and focus actively on self-care.
Deliberately focus on the positive things in your life, such as your achievements, the activities you enjoy, or the people who love you. Write a gratitude diary.
Although it may be true that the situation is unfair, it’s not helpful to keep focusing on it. Instead, put energy into areas of life where you have more control and you will eventually see rewards for your hard work.
Tabibnia, G. & Lieberman, M. D. (2007). Fairness and cooperation are rewarding: Evidence from social cognitive neuroscience. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1118, 90-101.
About the Author
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a Psychologist in Mill Valley, California, and an expert in social behavior, neuroscience, mindfulness, stress, & relationships..
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