Fairness is important to humans and some animals, but why do we have such strong feelings when things are not fair?
(799 words)
IELTS Reading Questions:
Matching Information and Sentence Completion

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 why is it not okay, if, as Kahneman says, it’s standard business practice to increase prices in response to increased demand? The answer to that is that the shop owner’s actions seem unfair, he says. Customers see the increased price as a loss for them and feel that it’s not okay for the shop to do this 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 seems 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 also seem to have concerns about fairness, as well as strong reactions to unfairness, as was shown in a series of famous experiments by Dutch primatologist Frans De Waal. In one experiement, 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 did it, 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, seemingly in response to the unfairness.

Animals in the dog family also follow rules of fairness when they’re playing, Professor Marc Bekoff explains. Similar to the way kids tend to let each other have a turn at ‘winning’ in play fights, when coyotes are play fighting, a stronger animal might roll over on its back to let a weaker one ‘win’, he says. 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. 

As humans we have strong feelings about fairness, and these studies with animals might tell us something about where those feelings come from. Bekoff explains that social organisation among dogs is similar to that of early humans, and 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 adds 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 emotions often drive our moral behaviour. Unfair treatment provokes strong feelings in us, but if we act on these 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, moreover, 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, Frank explains.

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, those of us 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

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This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Rawia

    Thanks Nick

    1. Nick

      Your welcome, Rawia.

  2. ALEX

    Thank you Nick! expect harder one next time

    1. Nick

      You’re welcome, Alex.
      I thought this one was quite challenging. 🙂

  3. Brathap

    Thanks Nick

    1. Nick

      You’re welcome, Brathap.

  4. Anes

    Really great to know about fairness

  5. Jolie

    Din’t thick about this before.
    I feel this is something deep in our genome.

    1. Nick

      Thanks Jolie.
      Nice to hear from you again.

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