April 16, 2008
Brain Scans Show Reactions To Fairness And Unfairness

In experiments similar to studies on altruistic punishment, people will sacrifice their economic interests in order to express their contempt at unfairness.

UCLA psychologist Golnaz Tabibnia, and colleagues Ajay Satpute and Matthew Lieberman, used a psychological test called the “ultimatum game" to explore fairness and self-interest in the laboratory. In this particular version of the test, Person A has a pot of money, say $23, which they can divide in any way they want with Person B. All Person B can do is look at the offer and accept or reject it; there is no negotiation. If Person B rejects the offer, neither of them gets any money.

Whatever Person A offers to Person 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. The idea was to make sure the subjects were responding to the fairness of the offer, not to the amount of the windfall. When they did this, and asked the subjects to rate themselves on scales of happiness and contempt, they had some interesting findings: Even when they stood to gain exactly the same dollar amount of free money, the subjects were much happier with the fair offers and much more disdainful of deals that were lopsided and self-centered.

The psychologists wanted to know if there is something inherently rewarding about being treated decently. So, they scanned several parts of the participants’ brains while they were in the act of weighing both fair and miserly offers. Consistent with previous results, the researchers found that a region previously associated with negative emotions such as moral disgust (the anterior insula) was activated during unfair treatment. However, interestingly, they also found that regions associated with reward (including the ventral striatum) were activated during fair treatment even though there was no additional money to be gained.

So people get a high off of being treated fairly. Keep that in mind when deciding how to treat others.

When you are disgusted your anterior insula buzzes.

The psychologists wanted to know if there is something inherently rewarding about being treated decently. So, they scanned several parts of the participants’ brains while they were in the act of weighing both fair and miserly offers. Consistent with previous results, the researchers found that a region previously associated with negative emotions such as moral disgust (the anterior insula) was activated during unfair treatment. However, interestingly, they also found that regions associated with reward (including the ventral striatum) were activated during fair treatment even though there was no additional money to be gained.

Your emotions rule your rational mind.

As reported in the April issue of the journal Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, the brain finds self-serving behavior emotionally unpleasant, but a different bundle of neurons also finds genuine fairness uplifting. What’s more, these emotional firings occur in brain structures that are fast and automatic, so it appears that the emotional brain is overruling the more deliberate, rational mind. Faced with a conflict, the brain’s default position is to demand a fair deal.

But if you can manage to suppress feelings of pride and contempt you can make a rational calculation of what is in your best interest.

Furthermore, when the scientists scanned the brains of those who were “swallowing their pride” for the sake of cash, the brain showed a distinctive pattern of neuronal activity. It appears that the unconscious mind can temporarily damp down the brain’s contempt response, in effect allowing the rational, utilitarian brain to rule, at least momentarily.

I bet that there's genetic variability in the extent to which people feel contempt or let their rational mind rule.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 April 16 11:06 PM  Brain Economics


Comments
Brock said at April 17, 2008 10:17 AM:

In the long term (more than one interaction), treating people fairly, and enforcing fair treatment in return, IS in your rational best interest. There is no contest between emotions and rationality in this context. They are the same. The irrational action is to "swallow your contempt" and allow yourself to be treated unfairly, because this means it will keep happening over and over again. Punish and reward the other person until you get the behavior you both can live with (fairness to each other).

Innovation Catalyst said at April 18, 2008 7:22 AM:

This is an old experiment which has been performed many times. The key to the experiment is this: "If Person B rejects the offer, neither of them gets any money." This elevates Person B from the beneficiary of a gift to a partner. The 'sweet spot' for the partnership ends up being around a 70-30 split. This particular experiment has applications in business.

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