Fairness - As Simple As Child’s Play?

Written by Jennifer Mahony

“That’s not fair!” screamed Elliot from the back seat of the car.  He kicked the seat in front of him for good measure. 

Elliot had been happily reading his book when his brother started complaining that he didn’t have anything to do. Unlike Elliot, Elliot’s brother had forgotten to pack any books for the long trip to Nana’s. Mum’s solution was to make Elliot give his brother one of his books, and his brother grabbed the one Elliot had been saving for later. Why did his brother get to have something nice when it was Elliot who had carefully packed what he needed for the trip? Why did his brother not get told off by Mum?  Why did Elliot have to share?

This familiar scenario offers insight into what people consider fair.[1]  However, it is not just Elliot’s perspective on fairness that is in play in this situation. Elliot has had a prize possession given to his brother, who appeared to be being rewarded for his lack of planning; Elliot’s parents want to arrive at their destination with the family and their nerves intact so sharing resources now preserves the relationship for later; and Elliot’s brother wants something to do and does not understand why the trip to Nana’s has to be so boring. All three perspectives are ones of fairness. But what is fairness? And why is so important? 

Fairness has been examined from almost every angle. Evolutionary biologists trace the emergence of social expectations of fairness and how they are hardcoded into our DNA over millennia. Equitable distribution of scarce resources was paramount when a society’s survival depended on group cooperation. The rise of inequity, or unfairness, begins where there is an excess of resources and survival is no longer dependent on how well the group cooperates.[2]

This biological approach to understanding fairness compliments research on behavioural responses to unequal reward.  In an unequal reward scenario, participants complete tasks but receive different forms of “payment”.  In one famous study involving capuchin monkeys, one group received cucumbers as payment and the other group received grapes—the higher value payment.  When the monkey receiving cucumber sees that the other participant gets grapes for doing the same thing, the first monkey refuses to accept cucumber as a form of payment.[3] 

How fairness is evaluated and experienced is equally important. From a psychological perspective any of the following outcomes could be considered fair:

  • Is the result the same: has equality of outcome been ensured regardless of individual circumstance;
  • Is the result deserved: has individual effort and freedom been ensured; and
  • Is the result needed: has social justice been preserved – those that need more get more; those that have more to give, give more. 

How fairness is delivered is just as important.  For example, in legal proceedings, fairness is evaluated in terms of decision-making and procedure. Both focus on rules designed to create transparent, dispassionate processes which imply equity of knowledge and access.

Bringing these threads together, disadvantage is unfair. We need to be recognised as important enough to receive the same information, relative level of resources and opportunities, and the same chance for success.  In other words, we all have the same understanding of the game and we all get the grapes. 

In her book, “Dignity: its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict,” Dr Donna Hicks explores this in her argument that dignity is the recognition of our inherent value and worth as human beings—it is something that we receive by virtue of being born; it is not earned.[4]  In noting that fairness is an essential element of dignity, she states that, “people feel that you have honored their dignity when you treat them without discrimination or injustice.” 

But each of us has a different perspective on what fairness means. A recent article in The Atlantic explores how fairness differs across the political divide.  Dr Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind[5], explores many of the same concepts. What we’re left with is that fairness is both a subjective and objective experience and that our concepts of fairness are based as much on how our individual brains are wired as they are on where we are from and what part of society we belong to. 

What does all of this mean for resolving conflict?  Fundamentally, we cannot presume that our understanding of fairness matches that of any or all of the participants in the dispute. If we let our individual assessments of fairness get in the way, we lose sight of what others may need in order for there to be “fairness”. 

Let’s presume that Elliot is now an adult working at a large company. He’s experiencing a lot of friction and low-level conflict with his colleague Sam. Sam is often late to work and leaves early and appears hesitant in approaching work. Elliot and Sam are now working on a joint project. Elliot feels as though he’s doing the work but that he and Sam are getting joint credit. Viewed solely from an equity perspective, Elliot may well describe the situation as unfair. 

But what if Elliot’s colleague is late to work because the only available transportation is unreliable?  What if this is the first time that Elliot’s colleague has worked on a project like this and is unsure of what to expect? What if Elliot’s colleague does not have access to the same resources, mentoring, and tools that Elliot does? Viewed through this lens, how do we determine what is fair?

Perhaps the crux of fairness is not about our individual experiences and perspectives, but rather how we relate to others and what we are willing to give for the sake of a good relationship. As one researcher determined, the true measure of fairness is "giving up an outcome that benefits you in order to gain long-term benefits from the relationship,” which “requires not only an ability to think about the future, but also the self-control to turn down a reward."[6]  In her paper, Āta: Growing Respectful Relationships, Tania Whakaatere Pohatu discusses the use of the take pū (principle) of Āta as a “vital cultural tool created to shape and guide understandings of relationships and well-being for Māori”—particularly in the social services context. [7]  Examining 13 dimensions of Āta and how they connect with Te Ao Māori, Pohatu explains how Āta is a transformative strategy for building and maintaining relationships.  Āta requires reflective deliberation in listening and speaking; moving with intention and reflection; and giving quality time to others with an open and respectful heart.  Āta embodies fairness. 

About the author

As an experienced litigator, mediator and arbitrator, Jennifer understands the importance of relationships. She is passionate about empowering people with the skills and tools they need to resolve conflict, and to rebuild relationships.

Jennifer is Client Director of FairWay’s Workplace Conflict services. Working with employers and employees has been a part of her career right from law school through to present. Her experience includes managing workplace investigations, developing tailored complaints processes, building conflict resiliency and intervening as a neutral party to help resolve workplace conflict.

If you would like to get in touch with Jennifer, please contact jennifer.mahony@fairwayresolution.com   


[1] It is worth noting that concepts of fairness can vary by culture, particularly when considering the level of deference a culture or society gives to authority figures. In a seven-country study examining how children experienced fairness, it was noted that, generally speaking, no one likes getting less, but depending on where you are from, you may not like getting more either.  For an article discussing the study (the study is not publicly available online) , please access: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2015/11/19/how-culture-shapes-our-sense-of-fairness-kids-everywhere-cant-stand-getting-less-but-in-some-places-they-dont-like-getting-more/?utm_term=.8ebe6a5dd82c.

[2] See the previous footnote.  The emergence or understanding of fairness on the human development timeline is usually characterised by an example from childhood like Elliot’s—the first time one feel’s that they have been treated unfairly.  The following article provides greater insight into how fairness develops in children: https://www.the-brights.net/morality/statement_4_studies/DOI/10.1038_s41562-016-0042.pdf

For an interesting perspective on the emergence of fairness from both biological and behavioural frames, consider reading this article on the emergence of class and inequality: https://psmag.com/social-justice/the-evolution-of-fairness-45681; and this article on the study of equal and unequal reward in primates: https://phys.org/news/2014-09-human-fairness-evolved-favor-long-term.html

[3] This video by the lead researcher provides an eye-opening and entertaining object lesson in what happens when you do not get the grapes: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=meiU6TxysCg.

[4] Hicks, D. (2011).  Dignity Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict (Yale University Press), pg. 26.

[5] Haidt, J. (2012).  The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Penguin Books).  Dr Haidt is a moral psychologist and approaches this concept from the perspective of morality and the concept of harm. 

[6] See  https://phys.org/news/2014-09-human-fairness-evolved-favor-long-term.html.

[7] Pohatu, T., accessed via: http://www.rangahau.co.nz/assets/Pohatu/Pohatu%20T.pdf.