Washington, Apr 17 : Do we try to be fair only when we secretly see an advantage in it for ourselves? A team of researchers including an Indian researcher tried to explore the question and saw some exciting results.
A UCLA psychologist Golnaz Tabibnia and along with colleagues Ajay Satpute and Matthew Lieberman, used a psychological test called the "ultimatum game" to explore fairness and self-interest.
For the test, Person A was given a pot of money having 23 dollars which could be divided in any way with Person B. Person B could only look at the offer and accept or reject it without negotiation.
Whatever Person A offers to Person B is an unearned windfall, even if it's a miserly 5 dollars out of 23 dollars, so a strict utilitarian would take the money and run.
During the test, sometimes 5 dollars was stingy and other times fair, like 5 dollars out of a total stake of 10 dollars.
The idea was to make sure the subjects were responding to the fairness of the offer, not to the amount of the windfall.
The subjects were later asked to rate themselves on scales of happiness and contempt. They found that 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-centred.
The scientists also looked at several parts of the participants' brains while they were weighing both fair and miserly offers. They 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.
The brain finds self-serving behaviour emotionally unpleasant, but a different bundle of neurons also finds genuine fairness uplifting.
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.
They also found that 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.
The study appears in the April issue of the journal Psychological Science.