Unfairness Objected to More When Close Competitor Benefits: Study

May 22, 2014 - News Release

People object to unfairness more if it benefits a close competitor rather than a more distant rival, according to a University of Guelph study.

In the study published today by Prof. Pat Barclay, Psychology, and student Ben Stoller, people tolerate inequity less when it boosts a close competitor than when it benefits a distant one.

“How would you react if you were offered a raise but a colleague was to receive a much higher raise for doing exactly the same work as you?” said Barclay.

“Such unfairness bothers people. They may even prefer that neither person gets a raise, rather than have someone else unfairly get more than them.”

Such apparently spiteful preferences are “irrational” to economists who believe people prefer to get something rather than nothing. But experiments have shown people react strongly when someone else unfairly receives more money than they do.

For example, if one person offers to divide a resource unfairly with someone else, the latter will often prefer that neither receives anything than allow the former to get the lion’s share.

“We found that people dislike close competitors getting too much of an edge in social competition, where a close competitor’s gain makes them more likely to beat you. This is less of a problem with distant or less direct competitors,” said Barclay.

The researchers used the “Ultimatum Game,” in which participants received an amount of money and chose how much to keep for themselves and how much to offer to competitors. If a competitor rejected the offer, neither participant received any money.

Groups were segmented into nine participants at a time playing in groups of three, with cash prizes for the top earners. In one version of the game, the highest earner in each trio won a prize. In a second version, prizes went to the three highest earners among all nine people, meaning there could be multiple winners from the same group.

“We found people were less willing to accept an unfair offer in the first condition. There was competition in both conditions, but in the first condition the unfairness would benefit a direct competitor.”

Barclay said people are not always consciously thinking about competition when they react against unfairness.

“People have all sorts of proximate motivation for rejecting unfairness, such as anger towards unfair people or a philosophical belief for equality. These proximate motivations seem to ramp up when people compete directly against others, and people demand more fairness from direct competitors. It could be an adaptive modulation of emotions in response to social circumstances.”

The study was published May 21 in Royal Society Journal Biology Letters.

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, lhunt@uoguelph.ca; or Kevin Gonsalves, Ext. 56982, kgonsalves@uoguelph.ca.

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