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The fairness syndrome

10 September 2011

"Don't talk to me about fair.. I went extinct thanks to you. What's your problem? Got no couscous for your grilled chicken? My heart bleeds. No, really."

Life isn’t fair. But it feels like it somehow should be – if life isn’t fair it’s just plain wrong.

The concept of fairness is ingrained in our minds and our societies. Whatever group of people you meet, they will have a concept of fairness governing their behaviour within the group. Even groups who are outside the main society’s laws of fairness have their own rules (i.e. “thieves honour”).

I find this intriguing. Why would we evolve such a behaviour when we live in a world that is so obviously uncaring and unfair? It seems like a recipe for some very disappointed and unhappy humans. What possible benefits could there be for such a ‘fairness syndrome’?

As usual when we investigate basic human traits we need to go back to those hot dry grasslands in Africa some 2 million years ago. If possible, life was even less fair then. Not only did we have almost no technology to keep us alive (apart from pointy sticks and some burning twigs), we also had much fiercer competition in the form of sabre-toothed cats, giant hyenas and other species of humans. It was a harsh life, and in order to survive we needed to cooperate. And in order to cooperate, we needed to be able to trust each other. This gave birth to the famous ‘I scratch your back and you scratch mine’ strategy, which evolved into pod loyalty. That way, as long as you behaved ‘fairly’ you could trust other people to treat you fairly in return.

Fast forward to that fatal moment of human social evolution when we started to grow our own crops. Soon after, the world population started to grow exponentially and before you knew it we had towns, cities, countries and empires. Suddenly you were surrounded by people you didn’t know and therefore didn’t trust. This started to dissolve the reciprocal back scratching behaviour that had proven so successful earlier, but the notion of fairness stayed with us. Even today, you can hear people justifying their (obviously antisocial) behaviour with things like ‘They just got what they deserved’ or ‘He would have done the same to me’.

So here we are. Almost 7 billion monkeys and counting. A loose collection of societies consisting of scared and alienated people, who all think they’ve been treated unfairly. What could possibly go wrong?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 29 September 2012 06:00

    I believe in treating people fairly, and most of the time, you get repaid in kind. However, I also believe most people are jerks, so am never surprised when someone crossed the line.

    I’m an optimistic pragmatist, I think. It’s a strange combination. Do you expect otherwise from me?


    • 29 September 2012 08:55

      Yes, it will probably work most of the time, since we feel bad when we treat other people unfairly. This feeling of guilt can be overridden by a sense of having been treated unfairly, though. So people who are jerks usually behave like that because they have been treated unfairly (or think they’ve been treated unfairly) earlier on. Not an excuse, mind you, just an explanation.



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