A new study shows that because we are strongly influenced by our self-interest, we are unlikely to protest about being overcompensated, even when there are no consequences.
The findings imply that people are less concerned than previously believed about the inequity of others, according to researchers at Georgia State University’s Brains and Behavior Program.
In fact, they say, our sense of unfairness is affected by our self-interest. This indicates that the interest we show in others’ outcomes is a recently evolved characteristic, researchers add.
In their study, published in the journal Brain Connectivity, the research team reports that, contrary to expectations, people do not show any sensitivity when they are overcompensated. This led the researchers to conclude that people are more interested in their own outcomes than those of others.
“A true sense of fairness means that I get upset if I get paid more than you because I don’t think that’s fair,” said Dr. Sarah Brosnan, an associate professor of psychology.
“We thought that people would protest quite a bit in a fixed decision game because it’s a cost-free way to say, ‘This isn’t fair.’ But that’s not what we saw at all. People protested higher offers at roughly the same rate that they refused offers where they got more, indicating that this lack of refusal in advantaged situations may not be because of the cost of refusing. It may just be because people don’t care as much as we thought they did if they’re getting more than someone else.”
The research team also used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the underlying brain mechanisms of 18 participants, who played two-person economic exchange games that involved inequity in their favor and not in their favor.
They found that overcompensated offers triggered a different brain circuit than under compensated offers, which indicates that people may be responding to overcompensation as if it were a reward, the researchers reported. This could explain the lack of refusals in this unfair situation, researchers said.
Each game involved three offers for how $100 would be split: fair (amount between $40 to $60), unfair-low (disadvantageous to the subject, amount between $0 to $20), and unfair-overcompensated (advantageous to the subject, amount between $80 to $100). Participants played 30 rounds of each game and earned about two percent of the total amount from the games.
In the first two games, the subject received an offer for how much money they would receive and were then asked whether they wanted to reject or accept it. In the Ultimatum Game, if the responder rejected the offer, neither player received any money, leading to a fair outcome.
In the Impunity Game, if the subject rejected the offer, only he or she lost the payoff, meaning the outcome was even more unfair than the offer. The subject got nothing, but the partner still got their proposed amount.
In the Fixed Decision Game, the subject could choose to protest or not protest the offers, but this didn’t change the outcome for either player. This allowed subjects to protest offers without an associated cost, the researchers explained.
The blood-oxygen level dependent signals of the brain were recorded by an MRI scanner as participants played the games.
These results provided new insights into the functional role of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and related networks of brain regions for advantageous inequity and protest, according to the researchers.
A network of brain regions consisting of the left caudate, right cingulate and right thalamus had a higher level of activity for overcompensated offers than for fair offers, they noted.
For protest, a different network, consisting of the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, and left substantia nigra, came into play. The researchers also mapped out how the brain activity flow occurred within these networks during decision-making.
Source: Georgia State University