Imagine this situation: a shop sells snow shovels for $15, but after heavy snow they increase the price to $20. Is that okay?

How about this one: two boys, Dan and Mark, have cleaned their rooms, and are to be rewarded with erasers, but there are 5 erasers. How many erasers should each boy get?

If you thought that what the shop did was not okay, then you feel the same as most people who were asked this question by Psychologist Daniel Kahneman; but why is it not okay? Kahneman explains that although it’s normal to increase prices in response to increased demand, people feel that the shop owner’s actions are unfair. He explains that customers see the increased price as a loss and feel that it’s not okay for the shop to do this just because they can.

How about rewarding Dan and Mark for cleaning their rooms? If you thought they should be given an equal number of erasers as a way to be fair, again, you’re not alone. A study reported by psychologist Paul Bloom in The Atlantic shows that kids have similar concerns about fairness: when asked how to reward Dan and Mark, most kids said that one eraser should be thrown away so that the boys can be given two each. However, it seems the kids wanted fair rewards rather than equal rewards, Bloom says, as they were happy for Dan to get 3 erasers when he had done more work.

Some of our primate cousins also seem to have concerns about fairness, as well as strong reactions to unfairness, as was shown in a series of famous experiments by Dutch primatologist Frans De Waal. In one experiement two monkeys had to do a task for which they would get a reward. The monkeys were in separate cages next to each other, but could see each other, and their task was to pick up a stone and pass it to the experimenter. When they did it, they were rewarded with a piece of cucumber.  

But things got interesting when the reward was changed to a grape (a better reward) for just one of the monkeys. It went something like this: the first monkey does her task and gets her cucumber reward. Then the second monkey does her task and gets a grape. The first monkey does her task again and just gets a cucumber again, at which point she throws the cucumber at the experimenter, bangs on the floor and shakes her cage, seemingly in response to the unfairness.

Animals in the dog family also follow rules of fairness when they’re playing, Professor Marc Bekoff explains. Similar to the way kids tend to let each other have a turn at ‘winning’ in play fights, when coyotes are play fighting, a stronger animal might roll over on its back to let a weaker one ‘win’. In addition to this, dogs bow to show that they want to play, and, like humans, they ‘say’ sorry if they play too roughly by bowing when they bite too hard.

As humans we have strong feelings about fairness, and these studies with animals might tell us something about where these feelings come from. Bekoff, for example, explains that social organisation among dogs is similar to that of early humans, and the dogs’ behaviour might tell us about the origins of our own morality. De Waal also concludes that our morality is evolved, and economics professor Robert H Frank adds that our concerns about fairness might have given us an evolutionary advantage in the past, and an advantage today.

Frank explains that emotions often drive our moral behaviour. Unfair treatment provokes strong feelings in us, too, but if we act on these feelings, it might help us in the long-term. Saying ‘no’ to unfair treatment will make us more likely to say ‘no’ in future situations, and, moreover, we will be seen by others as someone who is concerned about fairness. People who are known to care about fairness are more likely to be trusted and get better outcomes in negotiations with others, Frank explains.

Those that break the rules of fairness will often experience negative consequences. Coyotes that don’t play fairly are often ostracized1, kids that cheat will find it more difficult to find playmates2, and shop owners with unfair prices, like in the snow shovel example, can expect to lose sales3. Kahneman adds that employers who treat workers unfairly will be punished with reduced productivity, and people who observe unfair behaviour often join in the punishments. However, if Frank is correct, those of us who don’t accept unfair treatment might do better over time.  

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