The Chronicle Review

Hey, Wait a Minute!

Biological roots of today's anger

Mark Wilson, Getty Images

July 11, 2010

No fair! No fair!

"No fair" must rank among the loudest and most readily evoked complaints. Nor is the din of inequity limited to children. Consider the widespread anger generated by the Wall Street and AIG bailouts: Regardless of whether they were justified as national policy, those and other departures from perceived evenhandedness have a long history of rousing departures from citizen complacency, and even from civility. Ditto for outrage over executives getting outsized bonuses and golden parachutes while the rest of us are left to soldier on as best we can.

In evolutionary terms, what's going on here?

Another way of asking that question is to turn it around. Why do we feel so violated? Lixing Sun, a professor of biology at Central Washington University, thinks we have a "fairness instinct." And he may be right. He maintains that high on the roster of human propensities is a "Robin Hood mentality" that characterizes our species and qualifies as one of those "mental modules" that evolutionary psychologists consider part of our likely biological inheritance. If so, our fairness instinct goes far beyond the pleasure we take in romantic tales of medieval Merry Men adventuring in Sherwood Forest. Sun believes that despite the fact of our specieswide social and economic disparities—perhaps in part because of them—human beings are endowed (or burdened) with an acute sensitivity to "who is getting how much," in particular a deft attunement to whether anyone else is getting more or less than one's self.

In a much-noted laboratory experiment several years ago, described in the report "Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay," the primatologists Sarah F. Brosnan and Frans B.M. de Waal trained capuchin monkeys to perform a certain task for which they received cucumber slices. The monkeys performed just fine, until they were permitted to see others being rewarded with grapes, a higher-value payment. Previously acquiescent, many of the cucumber-receivers promptly stopped participating, sometimes even throwing those measly, unfair cucumber payments out of their cage. Aversion of that sort is well established among Homo sapiens as well—even though, at first blush, it appears irrational and, thus, paradigm-busting for economists trained in the Homo economicus model whereby people are considered to be "rational and utility-maximizing" creatures. Behavioral economists call it "inequity aversion"—the tendency to turn down a perfectly good offer if others are getting a better deal.

Inequity aversion makes sense for a social species like capuchin monkeys, which sometimes engage in cooperative hunting, with food rewards to be distributed when the hunt is successful; if a participant's payoff is not commensurate with his or her effort—and if others receive a disproportionately generous return—then further participation may well be personally counterproductive. What looks superficially like spiteful grudge-keeping could thus be adaptive equity-insistence.

In the "Ultimatum Game," a laboratory setup favored by social psychologists and behavioral economists, human beings insist upon fairness, even at the apparent cost of their immediate best interest. In this simple game, one individual is given some money—say $10—and then is instructed to propose a take-it-or-leave-it division with another individual. Thus, Player 1 may propose an equal split ($5 for each), or $9.99 for herself and one cent for Player 2, and so forth, whereupon the other player accepts or rejects the ultimatum; no second chances.

Logically, Player 2 should accept any offer, regardless of its seeming equity, since even a penny is better than nothing. There is considerable cross-cultural variation in the actual responses of individuals on the receiving end of such ultimatums, and yet to the surprise of many scientists, there is a widespread tendency to reject offers in which the recipient gets less than about 30 percent of the total. Most people would prefer to abandon the whole deal, so that no one gets anything, rather than be on the receiving end of an unfair distribution.

In fact, in most cases, the individual who gets to determine the division actually proposes something not too far removed from 50/50, almost never demanding a strongly asymmetric distribution. A generous interpretation is that, in addition to a fairness instinct that generates aversion to being presented with an unfair situation, people are also predisposed to be fair. Alternatively, maybe they are simply being selfish realists who intuit the fairness instinct of others and realize that a blatantly unfair ultimatum is liable to result in getting nothing. It is always possible that people are less predisposed toward genuine fairness than they are to the appearance of fairness, all the while secretly hoping to obtain an unfair share for themselves. Those yelling at political meetings may be angry at large banks receiving millions while small businesses go begging; or they may want the government to bail them out, too. Those incensed at the prospect of federal relief for people upside-down on their mortgages often yell "No fair, No fair!" since they have been paying their debts without comparable assistance. Similarly, anger over proposed immigration reform often revolves around a perceived asymmetry: Why should "they" get leniency when "my people" played by the rules?

For a fairness instinct to have evolved by natural selection, those who possessed it must have been disproportionately successful in projecting their genes for it into the future. How might that have happened? Wouldn't each individual be more fit taking whatever he or she could get, rather than turning down opportunities simply because they were unfair and thereby sometimes getting nothing at all? Why bother yourself with what others are getting—i.e., with fairness—instead of just trying to maximize your own payoff?

There are several possible answers. For one, consider that in some circumstances, one's payoff is very much a function of what others are getting ... and giving. That is particularly true of so-called reciprocal altruism, misnamed because it isn't based on altruism at all, but rather on a selfish exchange whereby the donor is subsequently repaid (and then some) by the recipient.

As emphasized by the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, who first brought reciprocity to the attention of biologists, such systems are vulnerable to exploitation by cheaters who accept the beneficence of others but fail to reciprocate. Systems of would-be reciprocation can therefore evolve only when the participants do their part, which is to say, when they behave fairly. One intriguing, albeit unsavory, example occurs among vampire bats. Successful nocturnal foragers regurgitate blood to those whose efforts have been less well compensated; in exchange, when the recipients strike it bloody rich, they are likely to repay their benefactors. But bona fide examples of reciprocity—aside from vampire bats and human beings—have been very difficult to identify.

Perhaps one reason for the evident rarity of nonhuman reciprocity is that the ability and inclination to police interactions for fairness (vampire bats and capuchin monkeys aside) may itself be rare outside the human context. But once most of the necessary conditions for reciprocity have been met—sociality to set the stage, brainpower to permit memory of who has been initially helpful as well as who has met his or her reciprocal obligation, opportunities to render aid as well as a high probability of the tables being turned in the future—then selection could well favor a keen eye for fairness, if only to discriminate between who plays by the rules and who does not. Reciprocity requires fair play; thus, adaptations for reciprocity may well involve adaptations to detect fairness.

Another biological basis for fairness probably derives from the fact that natural selection doesn't operate by absolute reproductive success but by relative measures. Fitness is most meaningfully described as a fraction, with the numerator being the abundance of any gene(s) in question and the denominator being that of all alternative forms of the same gene. Thus it isn't simply a matter of how successful you are, but how you stack up relative to others. As in the joke, "How's your husband?" Answer: "Compared to what?" The key evolutionary question isn't "How am I doing?" Rather it's "How am I doing compared to everyone else?"

The pursuit of fairness is widely perceived to be admirable. And yet there is something unappealing about monitoring the payoffs of others and seeking to restrict what they get simply because the self-appointed whistle-blowers aren't getting a comparable return. Isn't it more laudable to go about feathering your own nest, or at least, minding your own business, rather than complaining that the nests of others are getting unfairly overstuffed?

But since evolution favors whatever maximizes relative fitness, it smiles not only upon those who do well, but also upon those who frown on competitors poised to do better. One way to achieve the approval of natural selection, therefore, is not only to strive to maximize one's own payoff but also to monitor that of others, and to complain loudly if it seems too high, especially if such a complaint is at all likely to better the situation of those who act as Robin Hood or who cheer him on in the name of fairness.

The jockeying of genes has direct parallels in the arena of human behavior, especially with regard to conflict. Forty years ago, the political scientist Ted Robert Gurr wrote an important book titled Why Men Rebel, which he explained in terms of "relative deprivation." Gurr (whose work was in no way predicated upon biology) pointed out that at the time of the French Revolution, for example, the absolute level of citizen poverty was less than at any previous time in French history. What drove the sans-culottes was the perceived relative level of deprivation—in our terms, the extent to which things weren't so much bad as unfair.

What relative deprivation implies for society, relative fitness does for biology. Fairness is the perception that relative deprivation is relatively under control, leading to the prospect that relative fitness, too, will not be grossly unbalanced. It may well be that when things are fair, most participants aren't doing terribly well, but at least they can have some confidence that relative to others, their circumstances aren't terrible, and are better than might otherwise be expected.

In the arcane mathematics of game theory, people occupy a "Pareto equilibrium," whereby all parties are capable of improving their situations, but any improvement necessarily comes at the expense of others. As a result, such an equilibrium is bound to be a nervous one, whereby everyone is selected to be finely attuned to any departures from fairness; hence, the widespread concern for a "fair coin," "fair match," "fair play," "fair exchange," a level—which is to say a "fair"—playing field. Fairness rules (in the sense of being all-powerful), and therefore it is no coincidence that most rules (in the sense of guidelines for legitimate behavior) are developed with the goal of maintaining fairness.

A focus on fairness points, interestingly, to a contradiction in free-market systems: On the one hand, it is only fair that people be given a chance to better themselves, and patently unfair if they are prevented from doing so. But on the other, given the inherent differences among individuals, as well as their socioeconomic discrepancies, the outcome of freedom is certain to be unequal, and thus unfair.

Although most people agree that fairness is a good thing, they disagree as to how it is to be achieved. Hence most of the controversy—and anger—over domestic politics. For the political right wing, it isn't fair for society to impose taxes, to use one person's hard-earned money for the betterment of others, to restrict personal freedom (including the freedom to pursue unfettered private enterprise and even, in some cases, the freedom to pollute and destroy the environment). Yet it is fair for government to restrain malefactors. For those on the political left, it goes without saying that equal opportunity is fair. Moreover, for many it is necessary but not sufficient: Equal outcome is the holy grail of social fairness, to which the political right responds that it is unfair to insist on equality of outcome when individuals are not identical, whether in their biology, their effort, or their luck.

Consider next the slogan, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need," made famous by Karl Marx. Its practicality has long been debated, especially given the presumed human penchant for both greed and laziness. Less discussed is whether this communist shibboleth is fair, or desirable. Interestingly, however, the two descriptors "fair" and "desirable" are really just one: Whatever is adjudged fair is likely, ipso facto, to be seen as desirable. How many cases are there when a proposition, after being identified as fair, is then rejected as not worthwhile? Inhabitants in George Orwell's Animal Farm chanted "Four legs good, two legs bad." We insist, "Fair good, unfair bad."

The fairness maven Lixing Sun—who is writing a book about the possible biological underpinnings of fairness—points out that merit bears a complex relationship to fairness. It is widely acknowledged that differences in merit can legitimize differences in payoffs, both material and social. Yet the outcome may appear—and to some extent, actually be—unfair. Differences in merit are indeed often exaggerated by those seeking to justify departures from fairness; after all, many mammals have evolved systems of social hierarchy, within which it may be adaptive for participants to accept their positions and thereby avoid wasteful struggles, but also to be alert for any departures from fairness, which is to say, aware of circumstances that offer them at least some prospect of self-advancement.

Many things elicit anger, which, after all, is simply a biological mechanism that induces people to respond vigorously—sometimes violently—to circumstances in which such a response is generally adaptive. (Or at least, has been adaptive in the past.) We get angry when frustrated, when we experience pain, when defending ourselves or others, and not merely because our genetic sense of fairness has been violated. Like many, for example, I am currently very angry at BP, not so much because that corporation has been unfair as for what it has done to the Gulf of Mexico. Anger, like Walt Whitman's sense of himself, is large. It contains multitudes.

Although not all anger derives from unfairness, we might want to look further into whether people have a fairness instinct. It could help us understand why certain policies are embraced and others resisted, why self-righteous anger is sometimes so easily elicited, and whether that anger is itself fair.

David P. Barash is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington. His most recent book, written with Judith Eve Lipton, is Strange Bedfellows: The Surprising Connection Between Sex, Evolution and Monogamy (Bellevue Literary Press, 2009).