Are humans hardwired for fair play?

April 17th, 2008 - 5:37 pm ICT by admin  

Washington, April 17 (IANS) Is fairness simply a ruse, something we adopt only when we secretly see an advantage in it for ourselves? Many psychologists have in recent years moved away from this purely utilitarian view, dismissing it as too simplistic.

Recent advances in both cognitive science and neuroscience now allow psychologists to approach this question in some different ways, and they are getting some intriguing results.

Golnaz Tabibnia, and colleagues Ajay Satpute and Matthew Lieberman of University College of Los Angeles (UCLA), used a psychological test called “ultimatum game” to explore fairness and self-interest in the laboratory.

In this particular version, person A has a pot of money, say $23, which he and Person B can divide in any way they want between themselves.

But all Person B can do is look at the offer and accept or reject it - there is no negotiation. If B rejects the offer, neither of them gets any money.

Whatever A offers to B is an unearned windfall, even if it’s a miserly $5 out of $23, so a strict utilitarian would take the money and run.

But that’s not exactly what happens in the laboratory. The UCLA scientists ran the experiment so sometimes $5 was stingy and other times fair, say $5 out of a total stake of $10.

Even when they stood to gain exactly the same amount of free money, the subjects were much happier with the fair offers and much more disdainful of deals that were lopsided and self-centred.

The scientists scanned several parts of the participants’ brains.

Consistent with previous results, the researchers found that a region previously associated with negative emotions such as moral disgust was activated during unfair treatment.

However, interestingly, they also found that regions associated with reward were activated during fair treatment even though there was no additional money to be gained.

As reported in the April issue of the journal Psychological Science, the brain finds self-serving behaviour emotionally unpleasant but a different bundle of neurons also finds genuine fairness uplifting.

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