“That’s not fair!”

Our social nature has given us two capacities: a set of immediate emotional responses, and the reasoning ability to assess our own actions and those of others in our group.

This view of human nature is supported by the research of Damasio and others — and recently, by an fMRI study of brain activity during the ubiquitous “Ultimatum Game.”

In her article “Thirst for Fairness May Have Helped Us Survive,” in the New York Times, Natalie Angier reports on a new study that shows that there is a complex biological process behind test subjects’ reactions to “unfair” offers in the “Ultimatum Game,” in which one participant offers a share of a resource to the other participant, whose rejection of the offered share means that neither participant gets any portion of the resource.

Previous anatomical studies have shown that the dlPFC (dorsolinear prefrontal cortex) “lights up” during the potential recipient’s evaluation of the fairness of the proposed resource split. Scientists speculate that the dlPFC is engaged in a rational fairness assessment as well as a projection of the future consequences of the decision.

Now, Katarina Gospic et al. have shown that before the dlPFC makes a final decision, the amygdala, an important seat of non-reflective emotional response, shows increased activity when a participant is presented with an unfair offer (typically, offers of 20% or less are rejected).

In a carefully-designed test, the researchers structured the sharing offer scenario so that the share offer number was the last word presented. In this way, they were able to determine a precise “onset time” for response. They found that there was a short-term, immediate amygdala response to unfair offers — and that this response preceded the onset of increased dlPFC activity.

Participants were divided into two groups, one of which was given an amygdala-suppressing drug, while the other, control group was unmedicated. While both groups rated low offers as equally unfair, the medicated, experimental group rejected only half as many unfair offers as did those in the control group.

Clearly, amygdala response is a factor in the determination of fairness. While the secondary dlPFC processes were important in decision-making, the influence of an unimpeded amygdala response affected the final decision made by the dlPFC.

In this way, the researchers were able to demonstrate, in Angier’s words, that “A sense of fairness is both cerebral and visceral, cortical and limbic.” Gospic et al. conclude:

The automaticity driven rejection response has a phylogenetically
older representation than the calculated acceptance based on a
consciously determined self-optimizing strategy.

Or, in English: The evaluation of the fairness of an offer has an emotional basis, one that can influence an offer’s rejection even though we know rationally that rejection means getting nothing.

So it seems that our sense of fairness is to some extent hardwired into our brains. As the researchers note: “Takagishi et al. demonstrated that preschoolers do reject unfair offers in spite of having no explicit account of unfairness or theory of mind.”

The adaptational advantages of forming relatively egalitarian groups can be seen clearly not only in our own recent success as a species but also, and over a much greater period of time, in social insects like ants and bees. As evolutionary psychologist David Sloane Wilson says in the New York Times article:

A major transition occurs when you have mechanisms for suppressing fitness differences and establishing equality within groups, so that it is no longer possible to succeed at the expense of your group. … It’s a rare event, and it’s hard to get started, but when it does you can quickly dominate the earth. Human evolution … clearly falls into this paradigm.

If Wilson is right, and if the examples of the few remaining tribal societies are reliable indicators of our past, then, as Angier puts it, “Homo sapiens have an innate distaste for hierarchical extremes, the legacy of our long nomadic prehistory as tightly knit bands living by veldt-ready team-building rules: the belief in fairness and reciprocity, a capacity for empathy and impulse control, and a willingness to work cooperatively in ways that even our smartest primate kin cannot match.”

On a slight tangent, and thinking of last week’s article, this is the kind of behaviour study that I like. Rather than just making a speculative explanation of an observation, this study relates a defined behaviour to a measurable brain state. It’s here that the border between evolutionary psychology and neuropsychology blurs, to the benefit of both fields.

What these insights may mean for our nascent “late capitalism” isn’t particularly specific, and they certainly would be challenged by those at the apex of the inverted economic pyramid — and by the mass media, think tank economists, and contribution-hungry politicians who work to protect their rarefied status.

Tribal societies have devised various strategies for shaming, reining in, or eliminating those individuals who too egregiously violate the group’s fairness standards.

I have no specific prescriptions for relieving unfairness, nor savant’s predictions of the long-term effects of too much economic inequality  — but that there are consequences to persistent unfairness is beyond doubt.

It appears that we’re just built that way.


One thought on ““That’s not fair!”

  1. Banker’s bonuses spring to mind.We lack the tribal strategies and the consequences may be upon us. It seems a lifetime ago that governments could enact fairness legislation in the name of the majority without being accused of wanting to make the beautiful plain by forced surgical intervention. But in reality it took a couple of hundred years and world wars for enlightenment values to be expressed politically. We may have to wait awhile for Darwin and Damasio to take hold.

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