I often get the feeling in life that some people would rather get less, so long as others don’t get more. Let me explain.

Imagine that the U.S. government decides to give everyone $15,000. Sounds good, right? But what if this included prisoners, people who are unemployed (and able to work), and whatever else group you might deem undeserving of the money? Would you still be happy with the $15,000? Or would you be annoyed that everyone is getting equal treatment?

To take another example, imagine your boss gives every employee in your position a raise. He gives you and your other colleagues a raise of $1 an hour, except for Jack. Jack gets $3 an hour raise, and this was decided randomly. Would you be happy with your own raise, irritated, or both?

To take a final example, imagine that your taxes are cut by 5 percent, but the lower income group beneath has taxes cut by 10 percent. This results in that group taking home the same pay as you now after taxes. Now, you make more money than you used to after taxes. But would you still be annoyed? Would you rather not have the money?

A lot of research has addressed this in a more micro form.

A whole host of experiments have asked people in groups of two to divide a small amount of money, like $10. A person is chosen at random to be the initial splitter of the money. They decide how much they want to offer the other person. The other person can then decide to take the money, or to reject the money. If they reject, neither person gets anything. In other words, if you get offered $2 knowing the other person is going to take $8, do you agree? This is a one-time decision, so your choice will not reflect any potential future earnings.

In one study, the initial person was actually in on the experiment, and was told to offer $8 for themselves and $2 for the actual participant, or to offer $6 for themselves, and $4 for the actual participant.

The results – I think – are super interesting. From a purely rational perspective, people should always take the money offered. It shouldn’t matter what the other person is getting or if it is an even split, because any amount of money is more than what you have. And from a rational view, people should maximize their own situation.

But that isn’t what happened. In the U.S. sample, 85 pecent of participants offered $2 rejected it (believing that the other person would get $8). This was the case whether the other person was a friend or a stranger. When the amount was $4, 58 percent of people rejected it they believed a friend was making the offer, and 30 percent rejected if they believed a stranger was making the offer (believing the other person would get $6).

That is, quite a high percentage of people were more willing to take no money than to let the other person take a higher amount of money than them.

In the Chinese sample, similar results were found for strangers. 86 percent rejected the $2 offer, and 43 percent rejected the $4 offer (or the equivalent in their currency).

In a follow up study, American participants were asked to imagine they would be splitting $1000 with a person they had worked hard with on a project. But the other person would decide how to split it. In one condition, participants were told to imagine that the other person wanted 80 percent of the money. If you accept, you get 20 percent. If you reject, neither of you get anything and the company you worked for keeps the money. In this case, 20 percent of people said they would accept if they were not close to the other person, and 38 percent said they would reject if it was a person close to them making the offer.

Again, a good percentage of people said they would forego $200 if it meant that the other person got $800. This was true even though they would get nothing instead of the $200.

There are basically two things at play here.

First, people have a massive need to perceive the world as fair and just. So we are motivated to want what we perceive as fair outcomes. So if it isn’t fair that someone else gets $8, or randomly gets a bigger raise, or a bigger tax break, many of us will fight this even if it means we end up – relative to ourselves previously or currently – as worse off. 

Second, we are social beings who are immersed in a world of social comparisons. We often don’t worry so much about how well we are doing, but how well we are doing relative to others. We worry about what others are thinking of us. So when we see someone else get ahead more than we are getting ahead, there is often a bit of temptation to want them to get knocked back down a bit. I imagine in the game scenarios described above, there is also the worry that the experimenter (or even the other participant) will think poorly of you for accepting an unfair deal. Social comparisons and wanting to make good impressions are powerful things.

If someone asked me if I think people always want what is best for them, my response would undoubtedly be something annoying like, “well what is best for a person, really?” If you are talking purely being more financially well off, I would say the answer is no though. The needs for perceived justice (or at least to avoid perceived injustice) and the tendency for social comparison can trump this motive.

We often don’t want what is best for ourselves. We want what places us – in our minds – above other people. This is true even if it means losing out a bit ourselves.

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