Our idea of fairness can easily be changed

Even the smallest suggestion of opportunity can distort perceptions of fairness, new research has found. Co-authored by Dr Eugenio Proto, Associate Professor of Economics at the Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy at the University of Warwick, the study showed a tiny hint of progress can serve to make unfairness appear more acceptable to disadvantaged individuals.

Dr Proto expressed surprise at the findings - which appear in the report Everyone Wants a Chance: Initial Positions and Fairness in Ultimatum Games - but said they give a clue as to why people are not more vocal in objecting to disparity when they live in an unequal society.

He stated: "It appears people are happy to accept extreme inequality when they have this tiny carrot dangled in front of them."

Even if individuals believe themselves to have just the slimmest chance of boosting their career, they allow themselves to be more tolerant of inequality that is clear to see, the authors noted.

Chartered Psychologist Dr Joan Harvey comments:

"This research was conducted using an 'ultimatum game', as favoured by economists in research. The 'proposer' offers a share of £10 to the other person, who either accepts or rejects the offer.  If they reject, neither gets any money. When the chances of being 'proposer' were 50 per cent, the other person accepted £2.15 or over; when it was 0%, they accepted £2.96 or more.  But at 1 per cent, the amount of money needed to be £2.53 or more to be accepted.  The economic explanation is that this difference of 43p for only a 1 per cent chance of being proposer is disproportionate and implies acceptance of unfairness in return for a 1 per cent 'carrot'.

"People view risk in different ways. We often amplify risk, as do the media; we judge ourselves as less likely to be involved in a road accident, and estimate risk of accidents differently when one has just happened. People cannot really comprehend their chances of winning a lottery as being as remote as they actually are but nevertheless  buy lottery tickets as you have to be 'in it to win it'. In this case there is amplification of the 1 per cent and people may be 'seeing' it as quite a lot more than no chance at all; however if it had been rephrased along the lines of a 99/100 or 99 per cent chance of not being proposer, then they might have seen it differently, as research has shown in many other domains of risk.

"However, it might also be the case that this is an artificial situation and people see it as such. By accepting a smaller amount, it is better than getting nothing at all. Not agreeing means no money. So... a bit like easy money for simply agreeing. In a real situation, for example at work, perceived fairness or equity is much more complex- if you judge your boss to be partial or unfair, you may choose to put up with it, try to change jobs, or move to a different department, or even quite your job, but you do not have the opportunity to 'reject an unequal outcome' quite so easily, and you might not want the consequences if you did!

"Whilst the finding might be interesting, it is possibly too contrived and too simple to tell up very much about the real complex world we are in and how we respond to it."