A study by scientists at Georgia State University found that humans are not all that concerned about inequity between themselves and others.
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study the underlying brain mechanisms from participants, who played three two-person economic exchange games that involved inequity. Each game involved three offers for how $100 would be split: fair (amount between $40 to $60), unfair-low (disadvantageous to the subject, amount between $0 to $20) and unfair-overcompensated (advantageous to the subject, amount between $80 to $100). In the first two games, the subject received an offer for how much money they would receive and were then asked whether they wanted to reject or accept it. In the Ultimatum Game, if the responder rejected the offer, neither player received any money, leading to a fair outcome. In the Impunity Game, if the subject rejected the offer, only he or she lost the payoff, meaning the outcome was even more unfair than the offer. The subject got nothing, but the partner still got their proposed amount. In the Fixed Decision Game, the subject could choose to protest or not protest the offers, but this didn’t change the outcome for either player. This allowed subjects to protest offers without an associated cost.
The MRI of the subjects’ brains showed that subjects were strongly influenced by their self-interest and did not protest being overcompensated, even when there were no consequences. The authors conclude that humans are more interested in their own outcomes than those of others. Sarah Brosnan, associate professor of psychology at Georgia State and a co-author of the study, stated, “A true sense of fairness means that I get upset if I get paid more than you because I don’t think that’s fair. We thought that people would protest quite a bit in the fixed decision game because it’s a cost-free way to say, ‘This isn’t fair.’ But that’s not what we saw at all. It may just be because people don’t care as much as we thought they did if they’re getting more than someone else.”
The research, “The Neural Basis of Perceived Unfairness in Economic Exchanges,” was published in the journal Brain Connectivity. It may be accessed here.