Fairness is relative!


Watch this video on the Pillars of Morality: Reciprocity & Empathy

Here Frans de Waal discusses Reciprocity & Empathy in animal experiments.  These are some amazing experiments that I believe have profound implications for our role as manager.

The final experiment (Capuchin Monkeys) is particularly interesting (begins at 12min 30sec)  as it addresses the issue of equity quite directly.  It’s not surprising that the monkey who is once quite content with a cucumber reward is quite suddenly distressed (and rejects the reward) when he sees his companion receiving a grape (a much favored treat) for the same task.
<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”//www.youtube.com/embed/GcJxRqTs5nk” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>

What would be even more remarkable, is if the experimenters had altered the effort that was required for receiving the grape vs the cucumber.  According to equity theory, the monkey who exerted less effort would be more satisfied with his cucumber reward and would accept that the companion monkey received a grape (a greater reward) for his greater efforts.  This is how it works with humans, but I’m not sure than monkeys are as sophisticated in their perception of equity.

In a very simple form, equity theory explains reactions to equity/inequity like this:


First, let’s make the ASSUMPTION that cucumber rewards are worth 1 unit of value, and grapes are worth 5 unites of value.  In this controlled experiment initially:

Monkey 1 receives one cucumber reward (outcome) for one act of work (input)
and his companion
Money 2 receives one cucumber reward (outcome) for the same act of work (input)

Initially, there is no sense of inequity and both monkeys are happy to complete the work task for the reward.  That’s because the equity equation looks like this:

.                                       Monkey 1                Monkey 2

Outcome (reward)                   1               =           1     <= perfect equity
Input (effort/work)                  1                             1

But once money 1 sees that his companion (referent) receives a grape for the same work effort, the equation looks like this:

.                                       Monkey 1                Monkey 2

Outcome (reward)                   1               <           5     <=inequity
Input (effort/work)                  1                             1

The result in human terms is often quite like that of Monkey 2, the rejection of the reward that was perfectly satisfying UNTIL there was a comparison between his own reward and the reward of others.  But this is the easy part.  We “get” inequity on an intuitive level.  No one actually accurately calculates in quantifiable terms the value of rewards and work efforts.  They are “estimations” which are generally biased in favor of the self.  Moreover, the human process of forming equity perceptions is far more complex as it involves choosing a referent to compare ourselves with, a more sophisticated estimation of the value of our work and the value of various rewards we receive from our working lives.  The hard part is “framing” inequities so that we don’t throw away perfectly good rewards (the cucumber that was once a satisfactory reward for the effort required) because of our perceived unfairness.

My next blog “Your Maama was right: LIFE AIN’T FAIR!” will address this issue in some detail.   Equity is a rational process, but it is overwhelmingly laden with emotions.  These emotional responses are the more difficult issue for us to deal with.    The question I want to address next isn’t “how can we create equity” but “How can we deal with the reality of inequity in our lives”?


2 thoughts on “Fairness is relative!

  1. Pingback: Your Maama was right: LIFE AIN’T FAIR! | Performance Management Counseling
  2. Pingback: This View of Life: The Evolution of Fairness | SelfAwarePatterns

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