That’s not fair! The psychology of our natural sense of justice.

Social experience is as important to our wellbeing as physical environment. Research suggests that our innate neurological threat-reward systems are activated not only in response to basic physical stimuli such as food/hunger, pain/pleasure, etc. but in response to five basic social qualities:

5. Fairness

In 2007 Tabibna and Lieberman did an interesting experiment where people were told that there was a certain quantity of money available and that it would be split between them and one other person. They measured the reward-mechanism response in their brains as they told them this, and found that if offered $0.50 out of $1.00 total then the subjects experienced a greater reward response than if they were offered $10.00 out of $50.00. The perceived unfairness of the latter situation was greater, even though, objectively, they were getting a better deal.

Fairness, it seems, is an inbuilt mechanism in the brain, and can affect our sense of relatedness and status.

“People who perceive others as unfair don’t feel empathy for their pain, and in some instances, will feel rewarded when unfair others are punished (Singer et al, 2006).”
(SCARF white paper)

Similar parts of the brain are activated when people perceive unfairness as when they are physically disgusted by something, driving people to a state of either anger or fear – the classic fight or flight response.

So what lessons can we draw from this for teaching and learning, school leadership and education policy?

Teaching and Learning

Having a consistent approach to rules, both rewards and punishment, can work in a teacher’s favour. It ensures students sense they too will be treated fairly, thus reducing anxiousness. It increases certainty and helps students recover relatedness even after they have been disciplined. Stressed and inexperienced teachers often attempt to mix ‘tactically ignoring’ problems with sudden harsh punishments when their patience breaks. This immediately aggravates the sense of fairness in every member of the class, turning them against the teacher. Attempting to do any real teaching when the class is in this state is futile – their fight-or-flight response is activated and completely dampens the relevant mechanisms relevant for learning.

School Leadership

In the general stress of a teacher’s job, the very last thing that they need is to feel that they are being treated unfairly themselves. A lack of transparency in pay, rewards, and promotions are common causes of perceived unfairness, and even more so when new management are parachuted in and suddenly decide that one or two members of staff need to be removed. Even if it is for the best intentions, a decision to treat some people by different rules will destroy the collegiate atmosphere for the rest. If in doubt, senior leadership should ensure that they come off no better, and ideally ever so slightly worse than their colleagues when a change in rules is announced.

Education Policy

Politics is rife with accusations of unfairness. In times of change when anxiety is generally higher then people will be acutely aware of any lack of justice. Common problems are when politicians push their ‘pet’ projects or make announcements without any genuine transparency. Of course politicians, like many other, suffer unfairness at the hands of the media, but it is vital that they avoid making the same mistake.

In times of hardship it is worth demonstrating how politicians and policy-makers are being affected, and again it is worth ensuring that the perception is that “we’re all in this together, but we value you so much that we’ll take a slightly bigger hit ourselves”. A notable place for this would have been where the UK government was negotiating pension decreases. I suspect that the whole thing would have been accepted much more readily by unions if MPs had made a show of how they were cutting their own pensions by ever so slightly more than their proposals for the rest of the country.

Summary

  • We make make assessments of fairness based on how we are treated compared to everyone else – it plays to our natural sense of empathy.
  • Unfairness causes stress and anxiety and induces anger, fear and hopelessness.
  • Lack of consistency is unfairness, and lack of transparency can lead to perceived unfairness.
  • If you have to inflict suffering on people you lead then you should be seen to be suffering at least as much yourself, in order to maintain the sense of justice.

Bibliography

  • Managing with the brain in mind, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009.
  • SCARF360 white paper, David Rock, NeuroLeadership journal, issue one, 2008
  • Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J.P., Stephan, K.E., Dolan, R.J., Frith, C.D., 2006. Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others. Nature, 439, 466-469.
  • Tabibnia, G., & Lieberman M. D. (2007). Fairness and Cooperation Are Rewarding: Evidence from Social Cognitive Neuroscience. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1118, 90-101.

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