01 May Fairness Is More Rewarding Than Money

UCLA neuroscience and human-behavior researchers have demonstrated a link between fairness and reward in the brain. “Receiving a fair offer activates the same brain circuitry as when we eat craved food, win money, or see a beautiful face,” lead author Golnaz Tabibnia explained in UCLA’s Newsroom.

The experiment utilized the ultimatum game, a test in which money is divided between two parties. The “proposer” determines how the money will be split. The “responder” can either accept the offer (in which case both parties keep the cash) or reject it (in which neither party gets anything, thus penalizing the proposer for making an unfair offer). There’s no chance for reciprocity because participants only play once.

During the test, Tabibnia and her team charted the responders’ brain activity with functional MRI. When a proposed offer was fair, such as $5 out of $10, the reward center in the responder’s brain was triggered. On the contrary, when a responder received a lopsided offer, like $5 out of $23, the region associated with disgust was aroused.

Even though responders in both examples would get the same amount ($5), most who received a fair deal ($5 out of $10) accepted the offer while nearly half of those who were given a bad deal ($5 out of $23) rejected it. Fewer than 2% accepted offers with a 10% – 90% split. This is significant because logically even 10% of the money would have been a gain.

“We had never thought of ethics or fairness as being tied to neurons,” Joy Hirsch, Ph.D, of the Program for Imaging and Cognitive Sciences at Columbia University in New York, told WebMD.

“Certainly money is rewarding,” Tabibnia stated in the Los Angeles Times. “But more and more research is suggesting that our social relations with other people…can be very strong determinants of our happiness and satisfaction.”

Anthony Baer
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