Imagine this situation: a shop sells snow shovels for $15, but after heavy snow they increase the price to $20. Is that okay?
How about this one? Two boys, Dan and Mark, have cleaned their rooms and are to be rewarded with erasers, but there are 5 erasers. How many erasers should each boy get?
If you thought that what the shop did was not okay, then you feel the same as most people who were asked this question by psychologist Daniel Kahneman. But, as Kahneman says, it’s normal in business to increase prices in response to increased demand, so why is this situation not okay? The answer to that is that the shop owner’s actions seem unfair, he explains. Customers see the increased price as a loss for them and feel that it’s not okay for the shop to do that just because they can.
How about rewarding Dan and Mark for cleaning their rooms? If you thought they should be given an equal number of erasers as a way to be fair, again, you’re not alone. A study reported by psychologist Paul Bloom in The Atlantic shows that kids have similar concerns about fairness: when asked how to reward Dan and Mark, most kids said that one eraser should be thrown away so that the boys can be given two each. However, it seemed that the kids wanted fair rewards rather than equal rewards, Bloom says, as they were happy for Dan to get three erasers when he had done more work.
Some of our primate cousins may also have concerns about fairness, as well as strong reactions when things are not fair, as was shown in a series of famous experiments by primatologist Frans De Waal. In one experiment, two monkeys had to do a task for which they would get a reward. The monkeys were in separate cages next to each other but could see each other, and their task was to pick up a stone and pass it to the experimenter. When they completed the task, they were rewarded with a piece of cucumber.
But things got interesting when the reward was changed to a grape (a better reward) for just one of the monkeys. It went something like this: the first monkey does her task and gets her cucumber reward. Then the second monkey does her task and gets a grape. The first monkey does her task again but only gets a cucumber again, at which point she throws the cucumber at the experimenter, bangs on the floor and shakes her cage. Although it’s impossible to know for certain why she reacted the way she did, some believe it was in response to the unfairness.
Animals in the dog family also seem to follow rules of fairness, says Professor Marc Bekoff. When coyotes are play fighting, the stronger animal might roll over on its back to let the weaker one ‘win’, similar to the way kids tend to let each other have a turn at ‘winning’ in play fights, he says. And when a dog wants to play with another dog, it will bow as a signal to show this, and if it bites too hard when play fighting, it will bow to say sorry.
Humans tend to have strong feelings about fairness, and these studies with animals might provide some information about where those feelings come from. Bekoff explains that, as social organisation among dogs is similar to that of early humans, the dogs’ behaviour might tell us something about the origins of our own morality. De Waal also concludes that our morality is evolved, and economics professor Robert H Frank believes that our concerns about fairness might have given us an evolutionary advantage in the past and might still give us an advantage today.
Frank explains that unfair treatment provokes strong feelings in us, but if we act on those feelings, it might help us in the long-term. Saying ‘no’ to unfair treatment will make us more likely to say ‘no’ in future situations, he says, and, what’s more, we will be seen by others as someone who is concerned about fairness. People who are known to care about fairness are more likely to be trusted and get better outcomes in negotiations with others, he says.
In addition to that, those that break the rules of fairness are likely to experience negative consequences. Coyotes that don’t play fairly are often ostracized1, kids that cheat will find it more difficult to find playmates2, and shop owners with unfair prices, like in the snow shovel example, can expect to lose sales3. Kahneman adds that employers who treat workers unfairly will be punished with reduced productivity, and that people who observe the unfair treatment often join in the punishments.
Fairness is important, and, if Frank is correct, people who don’t accept unfair treatment might do better over time.
IELTS Reading Questions for Fairness:
Matching Information & Sentence Completion.
Sources and links from Fairness
– Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, on Goodreads. (3)
– Article in The Atlantic about kids and fairness by Paul Bloom.
– Psychology Today article by Marc Bekoff about dogs and fairness. (1)
– Franz De Waal’s TED talk about moral behaviour in animals.
– Robert H. Frank’s book, Passions Within Reason, on Goodreads.
– Psychology Today article by Peter Gray about kids and fairness. (2)
– Photo by Richard Burlton on Unsplash