What if I told you that fairness is not necessarily something that people are looking for in life’s activities, would you agree? The reality is that research suggests that people are strongly influenced by their self-interest and not by the sense of fairness.

One study found that unlike a situation where a person gets the lesser end of a bargain and complains about fairness, when people get the better end of the bargain they don’t complain about it. They don’t consider it to be unfair. The new research published in the journal Brain Connectivity suggests humans’ sense of unfairness is affected by their self-interest, indicating the interest humans show in others’ outcomes is a recently evolved propensity. It has long been understood that people are sensitive to fairness when they are at a disadvantage. People will protest outcomes more often when they are offered less money than a social partner. But researchers Bidhan Lamichhane and Bhim Adhikari and Brains and Behavior faculty Dr. Sarah Brosnan, associate professor of psychology, and Dr. Mukesh Dhamala, associate professor of physics and astronomy, report that, contrary to expectations, humans do not show any sensitivity when they are overcompensated. They conclude that humans are more interested in their own outcomes than those of others.

“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,” Brosnan said. “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. People protested higher offers at roughly the same rate that they refused offers where they got more, indicating that this lack of refusal in advantaged situations may not be because of the cost of refusing. It may just be because people don’t care as much as we thought they did if they’re getting more than someone else.”

This concept has direct application to mediation and negotiations, as well as trials. First, in negotiations, it is very common for one one side to disregard fairness unless that lack of fair play affects them negatively. Moreover, there are many litigated mediations where the party is in fact happy that a matter is not resolving for a fair amount. They are focused on their self interest and the success of their negotiations as far as it relates to their self interest.

The same lack of fair play and direct concern for self interest can have a significant effect when considering that a jury may also not be interested in fair results, but instead their own concerns about losing money while bing on such jury duty.

Journal Reference:

Bidhan Lamichhane, Bhim Mani Adhikari, Sarah F Brosnan, Mukesh Dhamala. The Neural Basis of Perceived Unfairness in Economic Exchanges. Brain Connectivity, 2014; 140804120840007 DOI: 10.1089/brain.2014.024