It’s going to be a gloomy Labor Day for many this year. The national unemployment rate, now 9.1 percent, won’t seem to budge, and many states are doing worse than that. The unemployment rate in California exceeds 12 percent, with some communities registering staggering rates of more than 30 percent.
Yet jobs go begging. I see jobs advertised in store windows of my hometown, Washington, DC, where one in ten workers is out of work. Many working Americans find this perplexing. Isn’t it simple economics that the unemployed would take these jobs—indeed welcome any job—when times are rough?
That’s the utilitarian point of view, which says that we are rational calculating machines that do whatever serves our economic self-interest. But many psychological scientists have in recent years moved away from this purely utilitarian view, dismissing it as too simplistic. Instead, they argue, personal financial decisions are often influenced, irrationally, by feelings, including an innate sense of fairness.
Here’s one example of the many studies that have explored fairness and self-interest in the laboratory, often using a classical psychological test called the “ultimatum game.” In this particular version of the test, run by Carnegie Mellon University researcher Golnaz Tabibnia and colleagues, Person A has a pot of money, say $23, which he can divide in any way he wants with Person B. All Person B can do is look at the offer and accept or reject it; there is no negotiation. If he walks away from the deal, there is no deal. In the actual experiment, there is no real Person A: It’s secretly the experimenter, making a range of offers, from generous to fair to stingy. The experimental subjects get to weigh the offers and respond.
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 a scale from happy to contemptuous, 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. Indeed, many people actually reject very unfair deals, even though they are losing cash out of pocket, suggesting that their sense of decency is trumping their rational, calculating mind. It’s the equivalent of walking away from that minimum wage job in the service sector. They are responding emotionally to the idea that someone would hoodwink them.
That’s interesting in itself. But it could simply mean that we don’t like being treated shabbily, which wouldn’t be all that surprising. The psychologists want to know if, beyond that, there is something inherently rewarding about being treated decently. They decided to look inside the brains of these people to find out. They scanned several parts of their brains involved in aversion and reward while the subjects were in the act of weighing both fair and miserly offers, and they found that, yes, both parts of the brain light up during the ultimatum game. As reported a few years back in the journal 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.
So unfairness is fundamentally jarring to the brain, and fairness is fundamentally rewarding. Yet people do accept offers every day in real life that are less than equitable, and indeed they did so in this experiment. 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 firing. It appears that the unconscious mind can temporarily damp down the brain’s contempt center, in effect allowing the rational, utilitarian brain to rule, at least momentarily. So it seems contempt does not go away when the economic pie is sliced unfairly, it just goes underground.
Wray Herbert’s book, On Second Thought, explores our irrational thinking about work, money, food and fairness. Excerpts from his two blogs–“Full Frontal Psychology” and “We’re Only Human”–appear regularly in Scientific American Mind and The Huffington Post.