Humans Will Pursue ‘Fair’ Offer At Expense Of Own Needs, Study Finds

Fair play and a sense of rightness is an ingrained human value, a new study seems to suggest — and those studied seemed to hold out for what they perceived as fairness even if subjected to physically uncomfortable conditions, like their own thirst.

It’s interesting timing for a study on fairness, as the 2012 election heats up and shots fly from both sides on the subject of fairness and equality — with one side decrying income inequality and crony capitalism and the other complaining of redistribution of something people have fairly earned.

Yes, given all the talk in the news lately about what is fair, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that this speaks to a very base and provable human inclination, one that scientists found to be at play consistently in the study.

In the fairness research, participants were led to believe that they were in a situation in which they were either the arbiter or the recipient of a deal concerning a quantity of a needed good — water, in this case, while they were thirsty. But tricky researchers actually placed every participant in the category of having to accept an unfair deal, attempting to determine whether a sense of fairness would prevent the subjects from accepting a blatantly unfair offer.

Thirst was induced in all participants via a saline solution, and then their commitment to fairness was tested against their desire for water:

“In reality, all of the participants … were presented with two glasses of water with a highly unequal offer that they were told was from the Proposer: the glass offered to them contained 62.5ml, an eighth of the original bottle of water, and the other contained the remaining seven eighths that the Proposer wanted to keep for themselves. They had fifteen seconds to decide whether to accept or reject the offer.”

Bottled Water

Ultimately, unlike others in the animal kingdom, humans tended to reject the unfair offer even in cases of extreme thirst. Dr. Nick Wright led the small study, and explains:

“Whether or not fairness is a uniquely human motivation has been a source of controversy. These findings show that humans, unlike even our closest relatives chimpanzees, reject an unfair offer of a primary reward like food or water – and will do that even when severely thirsty.”

Wright continues:

“However, we also show this fairness motivation is traded-off against self-interest, and that this self-interest is not determined by how their objective need for water but instead by their subjective perception of thirst. These findings are interesting for understanding how subjective feelings of fairness and self-interested need impact on everyday decisions, for example in the labour market.”

The study on fairness was published in the journal Scientific Reports.