A Flaw in Fairness?

Fairness feels good. There’s a growing body of research that shows that the reward network in our brain is activated when we see others treated fairly. We are not simply self-interested, pleasure seeking beings – we’re social. If you want to read more about the neuroscience of fairness, check out this article from Live Science.

Our internal drive to arrive at a fair solution has largely been greeted as positive news. It shows we’re born to be good. But I think I may have found a downside to the fairness urge. Seeing fairness in the world feels like a drug in our brains, and this is a drug with a side effect.

I learned about the side effect while I was teaching a corporate workshop called “Power and Influence.” In the program, I help people see that they have a lot more sources of power and influence than they might have imagined. The workshop starts with The Game of Will, an activity I created.

In The Game of Will, seven participants are assigned roles as members of a family whose Uncle Oscar has just died. In a video will, we learn from Oscar that, being both wealthy and vindictive, he requires that the family arrive at a mutually agreeable division of his $100 million estate in 45 minutes, or else no one gets a dime.

I wrote the seven roles to correspond with different power bases, such as information power, reward power or connection power. The game was designed to let participants play with different sources and uses of power before finally arriving at a solution that everyone can be happy with. But every time we played the game, something happened that I had not expected.

Instead of me teaching the group about influence, The Game of Will ended up teaching me a surprising lesson about fairness.

I created one character, Nick, who doesn’t want any money. He’ll give away any amount he gets to a charity that his cousins don’t support. So if Nick gets money, it’s wasted. I designed the game so that Nick would never get a dollar of Uncle Oscar’s inheritance.

I had a simple purpose when I created Nick – I wanted to let the participants appreciate the benefit of learning what people’s needs are. I figured it would be pretty automatic – as soon as someone asked him what he wanted, it would be game over for Nick. He had clear instructions to say that he wanted nothing, and then it would just be a simple matter of the other cousins dividing up Nick’s share.

But something strange happened. No matter where I ran this game – from India to China to Chicago, in executive programs and undergraduate classrooms – Nick kept getting money. As I watched the various “Nicks” play the game, the same story happened again and again. Nick said he needed nothing, but he kept getting something. In fact, Nick would get millions of dollars. It wasn’t that the others in the game hadn’t learned that Nick didn’t want money. They gave him the money anyway.

When I asked his cousins why they gave Nick money, the answer was always the same: fairness. It just didn’t seem right that Nick should end up with nothing. Even though Nick didn’t want the cash, the others felt it was the only fair solution. They just couldn’t bear to turn in a term sheet with a big fat zero beside Nick’s name.

In the game, it was only fake money that was wasted. But once I learned this lesson, I started to see a lot of real things with real value wasted, all because fairness was backfiring. We tend to give the gifts we want to receive. In conversations, we diminish differences. We look for symmetry in the world.

Our brains' reward network is easily fooled. As long as that part of the brain thinks it has seen fairness, it feels good. Be careful about the warm, fuzzy feelings of fairness.

Sometimes our empathy can be our enemy.

I think the trick here is to have enough self-awareness to know the things that you would want if you were in the other person’s shoes, the patience to get to know what the other person actually wants, and the discipline to see the difference between the two.

What do you think? Have you seen fairness backfire?