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Laura Niemi, Ph.D.

What Counts as "Fair" and What Makes People Care?

The neural underpinnings of "fairness" as impartiality, charity and reciprocity

In research recently published in Social Neuroscience, conducted with Liane Young and Emily Wasserman, we explore how social cognition about the allocation of resources—such as thinking about allocators’ motives and relationships—plays an important role in whether people morally evaluate such allocations as "fair."

It often seems necessary to get people motivated to care about how resources are distributed by reminding them that people are hurt or helped by allocation policies. Politicians often frame policies involving allocation of resources, for example healthcare policies, in terms of how they help people (charity-based arguments; see "Obama Blasts the 'Fundamental Meanness' of the Senate Healthcare Bill in an Impassioned Letter" by Lindsay Miller). This is for good reason, of course, given that healthcare policy is intended to broadly improve humans' welfare.

Public Domain
People in Depression-Era Breadline. New York City.
Source: Public Domain

However, since it's likely that the people that one's political opponents consider to be "in need" will be entirely different people, arguments based on helping needy people may fall on deaf ears. This can be frustrating (see "I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People" by Kayla Chadwick).

Instead, arguments based on impartiality—which by their nature have broader appeal, and which our research showed are considered optimally fair and did not trigger as much speculation about allocators' motives—may be better suited to convince opponents that particular allocation policies are "the right thing to do" and "fair." They might not stir up an already-convinced base of support, but they might bend more ears on the other side of the aisle.

In three studies, we had participants read vignettes in which allocators gave out a resource using a procedure based either on impartiality, reciprocity, or charity. In two behavioral studies, participants morally judged the allocators (how fair was the allocator? how morally praiseworthy?) and reported perceptions of the allocators’ motivations. In the third study, participants underwent functional brain imaging as they morally judged the allocators.

First, the behavioral studies revealed that allocating to help the neediest person (charity) was rated as much more morally praiseworthy than allocating to pay back a favor (reciprocity), and equally as morally praiseworthy as impartiality.

But reciprocity and charity also shared many features: Reciprocity and charity were both rated significantly less fair than impartiality. They were also both rated as more motivated by allocators' emotion and consideration of the recipients' unique states compared to impartiality.

Laura Niemi
Regions of Interest in the study (back to front clockwise) Precuneus, Dorsal Medial Prefrontal Cortex, Ventral Medial Prefrontal Cortex (see Niemi, Wasserman, & Young, 2017).
Source: Laura Niemi

Impartiality stood apart; it was rated as easiest to judge as “doing the right thing,” unemotional, unmotivated by the unique states of recipients, based on standard procedures, and by far the most fair.

Brain imaging results revealed when people morally judged the allocators, they recruited significantly more activity in brain regions related to theory-of-mind (the precuneus, VMPFC, DMPFC) for both reciprocity and charity compared to impartiality.

Nevertheless, reciprocity elicited greater activity relative to impartiality in the theory-of-mind regions of interest, and significantly more than all other conditions in a key theory-of-mind region, the left temporoparietal junction.

Laura Niemi
Percent signal change in Regions of Interest in which activation significantly differed across the impartiality, charity, reciprocity and unspecified conditions. Charity and Reciprocity did not significantly differ in Precuneus, DMPFC, and VMPFC; both were significantly higher than Impartiality and unspecified, which did not significantly differ from each other. Reciprocity was significantly higher than all other conditions in LTJP. Errors bars indicate Standard Error of the Mean (see Niemi, Wasserman, & Young, 2017).
Source: Laura Niemi

In sum, fairness is as much about allocators’ intentions as it is about the resulting allotments to people, and how allocation policies are framed (e.g. in messaging by politicians) may trigger social cognition that either bolsters support or leads to accusations of exploitation and unfairness.

A policy that exhibits impartial evenhandedness in a caring way—that it aims to bring everyone up to a level playing field and doesn't intend to leave anybody in the dust—may be most effectively understood as "fair," and importantly, "good," by the broadest audience.


About the Author

Laura Niemi, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in Social Psychology and Global Justice at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.