A sense of entitlement is the enemy of fairness

31 January 2014

Nick Chater

As inequality rises across the developed the world, it seems that the global cake is not being divided ‘fairly’, but behavioural scientists have found that our sense of fairness is often very flexible - particularly when we have a ‘sense of entitlement’.

Most of us would like to live in an equal society where bankers don’t get million pound bonuses, MPs can’t claim thousands on expenses and an older person has as much chance of getting a job as a younger person.

But experiments show that our own feelings of self-worth and entitlement make us biased as to what is fair for ourselves and for other people.    

In a series of experiments for BBC Radio 4’s The Human Zoo, Professor Nick Chater, of Warwick Business School, examined how the participants valued fairness.

The first experiment, The Ultimatum Game, was set up to see if people would split a sum of money fairly. Working in pairs, they were asked to divide £10 between them. Participant one had to give an “ultimatum” to participant two, who then had to either accept or reject their proposal -if the proposal was rejected, both participants got nothing.  The results found that quite often people ended up splitting the cash 50/50 or 60/40.Participant one could ask for more, but then participant two would be outraged by this perceived unfairness, and would reject the offer, so that neither player received anything.

“In this experiment people tend to behave in a stable way, as if they believe that an even split is ‘fair’,” said Professor Chater. “But when we look further, the picture becomes more complex.”

In the next experiment, The Dictator Game, the first participant was a ‘dictator’ given £10 to split any way they liked with the second participant, as they no longer had a ‘veto.’ Some people still did a 50/50 split but on average people took a little more money for themselves than in The Ultimatum Game. But still people seem surprisingly fair—after all, they could just take all the money for themselves.

“The results of The Dictator Game suggest a sort of heroic generosity from the first participant that perhaps we don’t see in everyday life,” said Professor Chater. “People don’t normally split their money with random strangers! So why do they do this in the experiment?”

Listeners then played The Ultimatum Game again but this time the participant who was the best at answering a general knowledge question got to divide the £10 how they wanted.

“Now the people making the ultimatum claim much more for themselves,” said Professor Chater. “People seem to feel they are entitled to ask for more of the money, because they ‘won’ the ability to make the ultimatum through their own efforts. So fairness, with respect to outcomes, can get obliterated by a sense of entitlement."

Listen to Professor Nick Chater and Ed Gardiner on BBC Radio 4's The Human Zoo here.

To take part in The Human Zoo's online experiment click here.

Professor Nick Chater teaches Behavioural Sciences for the Manager on Warwick Executive MBA and Principles of Cognition on MSc Business.



Join the conversation

WBS on social media