Why We Love Equality and Hate Those Who Cheat

654d8055-3dd7-4cf1-ae41-461cf663292e-967x1020A four-year-old girl sees three biscuits divided between a stuffed crocodile and a teddy bear. The crocodile gets two; the bear one. “Is that fair?” asks the experimenter. The girl solemnly judges that it is not. “How about now?” asks the experimenter, breaking the bear’s single biscuit in half. The girl cheers up: “Oh yes, now it’s fair. They both have two.” Strangely, children feel very strongly about fairness, even when they scarcely understand it. Adults care about fairness too – but how much? One way to find out is by using the ultimatum game, created by economist Werner Guth. Jack is given a pile of money and proposes how it should be divided with Jill. Jill can accept Jack’s “ultimatum”, otherwise the deal is off, and neither gets anything.

Both types of fairness matter. Fairness-as-equality comes to the fore when we think about divisions of chores, favouritism between children or postcode lotteries in healthcare. Fairness-as-no-cheating is centre stage when we are outraged by professional fouls, drugs in sport, falsifying wills, miscarriages of justice or fraudulent elections.  So perhaps the four-year-old’s intuitions about fairness is not the first stirrings of egalitarianism, but the beginnings of an understanding of negotiation. With a sense of fairness, people will have to make us decent offers (or we’ll reject their ultimatums) and stick by the (sensible) rules, or we’ll be on the warpath. So a sense of fairness is crucial to effective negotiation; and negotiation, over toys, treats, bedtimes, chores, money etc, is the fabric of life.

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