A key to resolving a dispute can be fairness. A plaintiff may accept a lower figure he or she originally had in mind and the defendant may offer more than originally intended, if the offer is deemed “fair.” Studies have shown that though we have similar opinions as to what is fair for ourselves or others, our brains determine that in very different ways.
People will often turn down a sure reward if it’s the result from an unfair distribution of resources, according to studies. One study by Claudia Civai reported in Science Daily shows that although the behavior is the same, the parts of the brain working on the issue differ depending on if the subjects themselves, or others, are impacted.
She stated that prior studies showed that offers would be rejected if resulting unfairness impacted the subject or third parties. This new study used brain imaging to show the brain works differently depending if the unfairness at issue affects the subject or someone else.
The studies used the Ultimatum Game, where the subject had to accept or reject an offer for an amount of money which would be split with the person offering it. How it would be split was decided by the offeror, either fairly (half and half) or unfairly (the subject would get a small part of the original sum). Even though getting even a small amount is better than getting nothing, the rejection rate was very high.
In the latest experiments, Civai and her co-workers used tDCS, a “transcranial” stimulation technique that temporarily (and safely) deactivates a section of the brain. Prior experiments showed the medial prefrontal cortex was crucial in this of situation. The latest study used tDCS to shut down this area of the brain while the subjects carried out the task.
When deciding just for themselves, the subjects’ tendency to turn down unfair offers decreased significantly (seemingly deciding more rationally than emotionally), but this decrease didn’t happen when the subjects responded for a third party.
Why would we reject a sure reward for fairness’ sake, if it results in us not getting anything? Why would the brain evolve in a way that appears to put us at a disadvantage? Civai states the decision is only irrational in a purely economic sense. For people social agreement is a very valuable resource. “Following and having others follow the rules of civil conduct has a huge value for the individual’s survival,” Civai is quoted as saying, outweighing any purely material, economic benefit.
When you’re trying to convince someone that an offer or proposal is fair explaining it in terms that shows it’s fair to that person, but is also to others in a larger context, may help that person see things your way.