Fairness Judgments: Genuine Morality or Disguised Egocentrism?

Related to these findings is a recent study by Van Prooijen, Van den Bos, Lind, and Wilke (2006). These authors investigated how people respond to indications that a decision-maker may not be impartial, such as when a referee in a soccer match also happens to be a supporter of one of the teams. In particular, how do people respond when this partiality works against them (e.g., the referee is supporter of the other team) as opposed to when this partiality works in favor of them (e.g., the referee is supporter of one's own team)? In an experiment, a decision-maker would be dividing lottery tickets among two participants. Situations were created where the decision-maker seemed to like or dislike the two participants in four possible ways: The experimenter seemed to like both participants (positive and impartial), the experimenter seemed to dislike both participants (negative but impartial), the experimenter seemed to like the participant over the other participant (favorably partial), and the experimenter seemed to like the other participant over the participant (negatively partial). Results revealed that, when participants subsequently received a procedure that usually is considered to be unfair (i.e., opportunities to express an opinion about how to divide the lottery tickets were denied), participants rated the procedure to be most unfair when the experimenter was unfavorably partial. Of importance, participants responded exactly the same when the experimenter was favorably partial as when the experimenter was positively or negatively impartial. This suggests that people associate violations of impartiality with procedural unfairness only when the partiality works against them, and not when it works in favor of them. These findings further underscore how egocentric fairness judgments can be.

A remaining question, then, is to what extent people are consciously aware that their fairness judgments are inflated by egocentrism. Based on the idea that people automatically and effortlessly have an egocentric perception of the surrounding social world (Caruso et al., 2006), it stands to reason that egocentrism in fairness judgments also occurs automatically. As such, it is likely that people often are unaware that that their fairness evaluations are shaped by a concern to benefit themselves. Preliminary evidence for such unawareness of one's own egocentrism was found in research by Ham and Van den Bos (in press). In an experiment, participants read descriptions of fair or unfair events. These events either referred to themselves (e.g., "You and your colleague do the same work. You make 1400 Euros a month and your colleague makes 4100 Euros a month") or to third-person pronouns (e.g., "He and his colleague do the same work. He makes 1400 Euros a month and his colleague makes 4100 Euros a month"). After each event, it was assessed by means of reaction times to what extent justice knowledge was automatically activated. Results revealed that justice knowledge was more strongly activated following self-related descriptions than following other-related descriptions. These findings suggest that when people themselves are involved in a moral dilemma, evaluations of the fairness of the situation are more strongly determined by uncontrollable psychological processes than when only others are involved in the dilemma. Extrapolating these findings to the soccer team example at the beginning of this contribution, it seems likely that Team A and Team B members do not always consciously realize to what extent their fairness judgments are influenced by the extent to which the penalty was favorable or unfavorable to themselves.

To conclude, it does not seem appropriate to sharply distinguish fairness from egocentrism, as fairness judgments often are shaped by egocentrism. This is not to say, of course, that prosocial motives and ‘genuine’ morality do not play any possible role in fairness judgments. Most certainly, people often display a genuine effort to act fairly in moral dilemmas, and honestly believe to have other’s best interests in mind. The presently reviewed findings suggest, however, that such “genuine morality” is most likely to successfully shape fairness judgments in situations where people are truly independent evaluators, who have no personal concerns at stake in the situation at hand. When people do have personal concerns in a moral dilemma, their fairness-based reasoning is likely to be influenced by egocentrism, presumably without being very much aware of it. Egocentrism may thus be a very potent factor to explain why people can differ so immensely in what solutions to social problems they consider to be fair or unfair.



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Ham, J., & Van den Bos, K. (in press). Not fair for me! The influence of personal relevance on social justice inferences. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

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