Using emotional insight
for personal development and professional success

The Ultimatum Experiment – fairness allows societies to exist

In my previous post I was discussing the Ultimatum experiment, a simple but entertaining psychological experiment that suggests that if we feel we are being treated unfairly we are prepared to lose out ourselves in order to punish someone else.  The most recent experiment I have seen on this suggested that we punish others out of a sense of anger, rather than out of a strategic attempt to teach the other person a lesson.  It reaches this conclusion because drunk people still punish the other participant and drunk people are notoriously bad at thinking about long term consequences.

Personally I disagree with the conclusion that people are purely motivated by anger.  Poor though we may be at acting strategically when drunk (which is why a nights drinking is rarely rounded off with a rousing game of chess) I think the kind of action demonstrated in the Ultimatum Experiment is so deeply ingrained in our psyche that we don’t need to think it through, we instead ‘feel’ what is the right thing to do.

Man, as the cliché goes, is a social animal.  We function as a part of a society – that’s how we survive and that’s how we prosper.  But societies are tricky things, and to be a successful member of a society we have to strike an interesting balance, a balance which we simply call 'being fair'.

We thrive in societies because we receive more through being a part of them than we could get on our own.  By sharing responsibility for collecting food, producing goods, building shelter and defending what is our own, we can achieve far more than if we were each individually responsible for completing those tasks.  But being in a society is really just being involved in a whole series of individual relationships, relationships we must maintain.  Maintaining the relationships we require to make a society exist relies acutely on our sense of fairness.

What is the ideal kind of person to share a society with?  Clearly a person who is generous, shares their resources and generally acts for the good of others.  But what is the best type of person, from our own self interest, to be in a society?  Initially we may think, from a purely selfish point of view, being a freeloader – a person who takes from society but doesn't give back.  That way we gain benefits from society and get to keep our own resources as well.  But of course, sharing ones own society with freeloaders is the very worse situation to be in – they take from us but don't give back.  So whilst purely selfishly we might want to be a freeloader, we must be on guard to protect ourselves from freeloaders that are close to us.  If we spot a freeloader in our society we should do our best to either punish them so that they behave better in future, or push them out of our society all together.

But this, in turn, suggests that actually being a freeloader ourselves isn't our best strategy – if we are seen as being a freeloader then others will attempt to punish us or push us out of society, and we lose all of the great benefits of that that society was bringing us. We have probably seen this drama played out on a smaller scale in friendship groups over the years – I remember being at primary school and the accusation that 'you're a user' was one of the most vicious that was used.  An accusation that could lead to a child being ostracised from a social group for days at a time (seemingly a lifetime when that young).

So we strike a balance – a balance between being selfish enough that we get good benefit from our own resources, but not so selfish that we are seen as being damaging to society and so rejected from it.  This balance is what I think we instinctively recognise as 'being fair'.  We also constantly monitor the actions of those around us to make sure that they are being fair. If we come across people acting in a way that we don't think is fair we will generally react strongly – we will feel angry and may wish to punish them in some way.  But this isn't necessarily coming from a vindictive angry place – it may come from our need to protect our society.

I believe our instinctive, emotional, response to what is fair and what is not is deeply rooted in our emotional selves because it is necessary to maintain our society.  Like most human qualities what an individual person considers 'their fair share' probably exists on a bell curve – some of us instinctively feel we deserve more than others, some are naturally more pushy towards keeping more whilst others are more naturally generous.  But what I feel the Ultimatum Experiment demonstrates is that even when our intellectually faculties are clouded – by alcohol say – we still feel very strongly when a another individual is treating us unfairly, and will act in a way designed to demotivate that behavior – even if it costs us personally.  It's necessary because ensuring others act fairly is necessary to keep society functioning and that society is much more important in the long term than the short term loss of some money.

Next – what the Ultimatum Experiment suggests about our attitudes to public services, or why so many people complain about benefits so much.

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