Recently, while finishing up delivering a talk in Silicon Valley, I found myself struck by a deep sense of dread. I hadn't brought enough copies of hand out materials for the unexpectedly large group. This meant that at any moment a small mob of otherwise friendly people might turn against me, driven to expressing mild rage from a sense of unfairness. It was enough to put me on edge for some time until I labeled what was going on.
Fairness is the fifth and final domain of threat or reward I have written up in a series of posts, the others being Status, Certainty, Autonomy and Relatedness. These five ideas together make up the 'SCARF' model that has become a popular way of thinking about what happens in the brain during social situations. In later posts I will go further into the implications of the whole model, and how it relates to management, creating change, bringing up kids and other issues.
Fairness is a primary reward or threat
The fact that being treated unfairly can generate a strong threat response is unlikely to be a surprise to anyone. However what may be a surprise is that a sense of fairness can also be rewarding, in and of itself, and significantly so. Fairness, it turns out, is another primary threat or reward: the experience activates the same network that monitors real pain and pleasure.
Prime your brain to look out for fairness issues and they start to appear everywhere. Political clashes, both verbal and violent, tend to be driven by fairness issues. I recently turned on the television to see a villager in Africa shouting that she was willing to die to right the injustice of an unfairly rigged election. Fairness-generated emotions can run high in more mundane situations too: the feeling of being "taken advantage of" by a taxi driver taking a longer route can wreck an otherwise great day, despite the relatively insignificant money involved. It's the principle that counts. The legal system is deeply about fairness. Think of people who spend enormous sums of money to "right wrongs"
in court, with no obvious economic win other than "justice". (In the UK the department that looks after the courts is called the ‘Ministry of Justice'. It could be called the ‘Ministry of Fairness' in some ways.) We crave fairness, and some people risk their life savings and even their lives to get it.
Fairness can be more rewarding than money
Golnaz Tabibnia, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, studies fairness and the way people make judgments about it. "The tendency to prefer equity and resist unfair outcomes is deeply rooted in people," Tabibnia explains. One of Tabibnia's studies, in collaboration with Matt Lieberman, uses an exercise called the "Ultimatum Game." In the Ultimatum Game, there are two people, who receive a pot of money to split between themselves and the other person. One person makes a proposal and the other person has to decide whether to accept the proposal or not. If they don't accept the proposal, neither of them gets a reward. "'Inequity aversion' is so strong", Tabibnia explains, "that people are willing to sacrifice personal gain in order to prevent another person from receiving an inequitably better outcome."
Surprisingly, when people receive five dollars out of ten dollars, their reward center lights up more than when they receive, say, five dollars out of twenty. ‘In other words, the reward circuitry is activated more when an offer is fair than when it's unfair, even when there is no additional money to be gained,' Tabibnia explains. Fairness, it seems, can be more important than money.
Fairness doesn't intuitively feel like it is of the same importance as say food or sex. Because of this, many people don't tend to value fairness highly enough, and can be blindsided by the intensity of a fairness response. This is another example of Maslow perhaps being wrong. Society values survival needs such as food, well before social issues like fairness. As a result, someone planning a day-long team meeting might pay attention to ensuring everyone has a good lunch break, but forget all about people's perception of fairness around how the day is organized. More and more research points to the idea that distractions from a sense of unfairness could be harder to handle than an empty stomach.
Neuroscientist Stephen Pinker has a theory about where this intense response to fairness comes from, outlined in his book How the Mind Works. Pinker thinks that the fairness response has emerged as a by-product of the need to trade efficiently. In your evolutionary past, when you couldn't store food in the refrigerator, the best place to store resources would have been by giving "favors" to others. Resources were stored in other people's brains, as potential reciprocal snacks down the road. This mental exchange was especially important in hunter-gatherer days, when protein sources arrived intermittently: a bison felled by one person would be too much meat just for his family. To be good at this kind of trading you need the ability to detect "cheaters," people who promise but don't deliver. In this way, people with strong fairness-detectors would have evolutionary advantages.
These days, with fridges and bank accounts, you don't need to trust other people in such a primal way. Your fairness detecting circuits are still there, but now they tend to get more of a work out in the form of leisure activities, such as the game of "cheat" played by kids, or Texas Hold-Em poker, played by millions of adults the world over. These games provide an opportunity to flex your cheating and cheater-detecting muscles. While fairness in real life can generate a threat or a reward, detecting unfairness can be fun for the whole family.
When it's just not fair
Perceiving unfairness generates intense arousal of the limbic system, with all the attendant challenges this brings. As one example, because of the generalizing effect, accidental connections become easier: if you think one person is being unfair, everyone else may seem to be acting unfairly too. Many arguments between people, especially those close to us, involve incorrect perceptions of unfairness, triggering events that activate an even deeper sense of unfairness in all parties. This often starts by someone misreading one person's intent, being slightly mind-blind for a moment. The result can be an intense downward spiral, driven by accidental connections and one's expectations then altering perception.
Since unfairness packs a hefty punch, it's easy to get upset by small injustices when you're tired, or when your limbic system already has a strong base load of arousal. One study showed that the amount of seratonin in the blood, which is involved in feeling content, determined how people reacted to unfair situations. When you feel low contentment, you can have a strong response to unfairness. You have to be extra careful in these situations. If you are kept awake by young children, it's easy to get cranky with a partner asking you for help. If you've had a big day at the office, it's easier to get unnecessarily annoyed with a supplier who you think might be ripping you off, even though it might only be for pennies.
Fairness comes up a lot when dealing with children. "Do as I say, not as I do" is a statement parents wish they could use, but kids are finely attuned to fairness from an early age.
Justice is it's own reward
On the plus side, fairness is hedonically rewarding, activating dopamine cells deep in the brain, like a good meal or an unexpected bonus at work. The feeling you get from a sense of fairness is one of connecting safely with others, so it's linked to relatedness. When you feel someone is being fair, there is a feeling of increased trust. Studies show that a self-rated sense of trust and cooperation increase when people experience fair offers. Oxytocin levels increase in fair exchanges too, and oxytocin increases levels of reported trust in people.
When you experience fairness, the increasing levels of dopamine and oxytocin help generates an overall 'toward' emotional state. As a result you become more open to new ideas and more willing to connect with other people. This is a great state for collaboration with others. Yet so many structures inside organizations, especially large organizations, work against employees feeling a sense of fairness. Think of the all too common complaints about pay, performance, and transparency. In the big downsizings of 2009, one firm's executives agreed to a pay cut of 15%, making a big deal that this was three times more than the 5% cut all staff were being asked to undergo, to help reduce layoffs. While a 15% cut meant thousands of dollars a year less pay for an executive, this didn't affect their bonuses, which were worth millions of dollars. You can imagine how employees felt about that when word got around.
One interesting implication of fairness research is the idea that workplaces that truly allow employees to experience an increasing perception of fairness might be intrinsically rewarding. This may explain why people perform better in certain workplace cultures. I asked one executive I shared a can ride with why he had stayed at the same company for 22 years. ‘I don't know' he replied. ‘I guess it's because they always seem to do their best to do the right thing by everyone'. Organizations trying to increase a sense of engagement could do well to recognize that people experiencing a sense of unfairness may get as upset (and therefore distracted). as being told they wont get to eat for a day.
There is research on corporate restructuring showing that when people understood that downsizing decisions were made fairly, the impact of the downsizing was dramatically less. On the other hand, people who feel themselves to be treated unfairly by an organization can generate no end of complaints. Living in a world that appears unfair impacts people's cortisol levels, their well-being, and even their longevity. No wonder so many people won't stay in corporate jobs when they think that their company isn't doing the "fair thing" for its workers, customers or for the community at large.
There is one place you can go to experience a regular increase in the sense of fairness, and that's to work for social-justice organizations that distribute food to the poor or generally serve under-privileged communities. When you right perceived wrongs, like people being hungry when there's food being wasted two blocks away, you increase your sense of fairness. Organizations that allow people to take time on community projects are letting their employees feel rewarded by increasing their sense of fairness.
In summary, a sense of fairness is not just a nice to have if you want to be able to think clearly, collaborate, learn or influence others. Without a sense of fairness, people experience a degree of distraction from a threat response, that inhibits their ability to focus. Ignore fairness issues at your peril.