Fairness Judgments: Genuine Morality or Disguised Egocentrism?

When facing the question how valuable resources should be distributed, people often feel that there should be a fair ratio between the resources that one receives and the inputs that one has provided. For instance, people generally feel that an employee who works 40 hours a week (the input) should receive a salary (the resource) that is twice as high when compared with an employee that works 20 hours a week. Both relative underpayment and overpayment are generally considered to be unfair. But in everyday life, things are often not that simple. In many situations, allocation decisions are far more complex, for instance because various inputs are not easily comparable. To illustrate, various employees often have different task demands, different levels of responsibility, a different background of work experience or education, and the like. People generally do not feel that someone who works 40 hours a week should receive twice as much salary when compared with an employee that works 20 hours a week but carries far more responsibility. Research indicated that in these complex allocation situations, people have the tendency to overestimate their own contributions and to underestimate the contributions of others. As a consequence, people have an egocentrically inflated perception of the resources that they believe to deserve (Messick & Sentis, 1979). Such egocentric interpretations of distributive fairness can have detrimental consequences in a variety of social situations. For instance, research indicated that egocentric interpretations of distributive fairness can impede negotiations: When the negotiating parties differ fundamentally in their perceptions of what possible resource distributions would be fair, it is very hard to reach an agreement that is satisfactory to all parties involved (Thompson & Loewenstein, 1992).

Likewise, when faced with the question how fair decision-making procedures are, people are more concerned about what the procedures imply for themselves than about what the procedures imply for others. A dramatic illustration of such egocentrism in procedural fairness judgments can be found in an experiment by Lind, Kray, and Thompson (1998). These authors posed the question in what kind of situations people would feel worse: After experiencing a minor unfairness that is targeted at themselves (e.g., not receiving appropriate change after buying a bus ticket), or after perceiving a major unfairness that is targeted at others (e.g., someone else being robbed of all belongings)? To investigate this question, Lind and colleagues designed an experiment that compared two possible situations, both involving sessions with three participants. In one situation, two participants received procedures that people generally consider to be fair on three occasions (i.e., they were allowed opportunities to express their opinions), but they had to witness how a third participant received procedures that people generally consider to be unfair on three occasions (i.e., the participant was consistently denied opportunities to express an opinion). In the other situation, all three participants received a fair procedure on two occasions and an unfair procedure on one occasion. These two situations thus draw a comparison between perceiving a major injustice happening to someone else (the other receives three unfair procedures) versus experiencing a minor injustice targeted at the self (receiving one unfair procedure in conjunction with two fair procedures). Results revealed that ‘privileged’ participants, who received three fair procedures but witnessed how another participant received three unfair procedures, considered the decision-maker's behavior as fairer when compared with participants that received one unfair procedure themselves. These findings thus suggest that people consider a minor unfairness that happens to themselves as worse than a major unfairness that happens to someone else.

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