Is Fairness a Matter of Instinct?

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Indignant at an "unfair" outcome? You may just be reverting to baser instincts. David Barash, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education that some anger may come from a genetic disposition to seek "fairness" (or at least seeking a "fair enough" outcome to satiate one's own selfish desires). Citing numerous experiments in controlled lab settings, the work of reciprocal altruism theorist Robert Trivers and recent research by Professor Lixing Sun, Barash tentatively posits that humans have an innate, "deft attunement" for sorting out who should be getting how much and why.

His notion stems from the work of Sun ("the fairness maven") who is finishing a book maintaining that "high on the roster of human propensities is a 'Robin Hood mentality' that characterizes our species and qualifies as one of those 'mental modules' that evolutionary psychologists consider part of our likely biological inheritance." To take a simple example: BP's mess enrages us because it triggers our biological propensity to want to set things straight. But Barasch doesn't discount the possibility that "fairness" could simply manifest itself as "selfish realism":

It is always possible that people are less predisposed toward genuine fairness than they are to the appearance of fairness, all the while secretly hoping to obtain an unfair share for themselves.

Or anger:

Many things elicit anger, which, after all, is simply a biological mechanism that induces people to respond vigorously--sometimes violently--to circumstances in which such a response is generally adaptive. (Or at least, has been adaptive in the past.) We get angry when frustrated, when we experience pain, when defending ourselves or others, and not merely because our genetic sense of fairness has been violated.

Is our sense of fairness, like wisdom, hardwired?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.