How To Stop the Flow of Trickle-Down Unfairness

Image: Flickr/Found Animals Foundation

Image: Flickr/Found Animals Foundation

Once upon a time, my wife backed out of a parking space at a big box store…directly into the passenger-side door of a car behind her. She stepped out to fess up and apologize, and was met by a frothing tirade as the other driver demanded that she immediately pay $1,000 in cash for damages. Kristi cowered and cajoled and somehow managed to give her insurance information and drive home…at which point she nearly killed me for feeding the kids a frozen pizza that she was saving for later and for not making sure the kids got baths. All I saw was that my lovely wife had gone temporarily bat-guano crazy. But it wasn’t my fault and it wasn’t hers either. We were the unwitting victims of trickle-down unfairness.

Science actually has a name for this. It’s called “Generalized Negative Reciprocity”. Basically, it means that when someone is unfair to you, you are likely to be unfair to other people in return, even if the person you treat unfairly had nothing to do with how you were treated.

Economists can see this in an experiment called the Dictator Game. In the game, one person is the “dictator” and can choose how to split a sum of money between him- or herself and another player. The second player is forced to accept the split. That’s it. Not very complicated.

Only, the results get a little nuanced. See, most dictators offer at least a little bit of cash to the other player, even though giving away cash offers the dictator no economic benefit. This drives economists bat-guano crazy, as it implies there is more to the human experience than “maximizing utility”. However, while five-year-olds tend to split the pot evenly, even when they could keep it all for themselves, most adult dictators, while not absolutely stingy, are a little less altruistic. A recent study in the journal Scientific Reports showed that when splitting 25 euros, 83 percent of dictators kept most of the money for themselves. Then, like my lovely wife passing along the unfairness she had experienced, people who were on the short end of the dictator’s stick were more likely to offer unfair distributions when it was their turn to dictate.

Unfairness trickles down. The question of the Scientific Reports paper was how to stop the flow. Specifically, they wanted to find a strategy that resulted in people who had been treated unfairly NOT treating people unfairly in the next round. In the Dictator Game, this would be a higher number of players who got stiffed in the first round that went on to offer a more even distribution in the second round.

The German researchers evaluated four strategies: writing an undelivered message to the dictator who wronged them, writing a delivered message to the unfair dictator, writing a description of a neutral picture, or chilling for three minutes. The implication is kind of big: When someone treats you unfairly, should you do something proactive about it or should you breathe deep and try to move on?

In a first study, they showed that, indeed, when the dictator kept an unfair amount of the 25 euros, the partner became unhappy. They also showed that when participants wrote notes to the unfair dictator, they ended up happier than people who had been equally stiffed but had written descriptions of a picture or simply sat around for three minutes (it was even a little more powerful when the notes were delivered).

Interestingly, it also mattered what they wrote. People who expressed their emotions earned the biggest bump in happiness. People who questioned the dictator’s motive, offered understanding, or disparaged the dictator’s mother missed the happiness train as it left the station.

A second experiment took the obvious next step, testing how these people who had been treated unfairly acted when it was their turn to be dictator. Lo and behold, people who wrote messages explaining their emotions were not only happier, but also chose to give their second-round partner a bigger share of the pot. In fact, the people who wrote notes to the dictator went on to give half-again as much money as people who had tried other interventions. Granted, even these note-writing, happiness-enhanced participants didn’t immediately sing koombayah and equally share the experiment’s 25 euros — the median amount these dictator’s gave away was still a paltry 4.5 euros — but it was more than 3 euros given by people who tried the other strategies.

To the researchers, this more altruistic split after writing messages that expressed emotions showed evidence of a “decrease in generalized negative reciprocity.” For the rest of us, these results imply that it’s better to do something proactive about being treated unfairly. If you’re looking for something specific to do, try writing a note that expresses your emotions to the unfair person. Not only is it likely to make you feel happier, but it’s also the best strategy science knows to avoid passing on unfairness to the people in your life.

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