Neuroeconomics: Equality is hardwired

Abraham Lincoln

Today’s Wall Street Journal (link and excerpts, after the jump) describes a neuroeconomics study people had to decide between overfeeding some African orphans at the expense of others (i.e., some overfed, some hungry), or taking everyone’s food away so everyone is the same (i.e., all hungry).Turns out most people vote for fairness — even if it means taking away everyone’s food. Equality in hunger is better than unfairly feeding a few.

My first thought: Free markets are hard wired in humanity’s neural circuits.

Humanity is sometimes horrifically unfair: slavery, genocide, discrimination, to start what is probably a long list. Generally inequality self corrects. Abraham Lincoln illustrates one who took action to remedy inequality, in a big way. And look: he’s our favorite president.

Over-riding the natural nerve-circuits for fairness requires thinking a thought: why, the “other” is not deserving of fairness.

The “other” people (minorities, religious “others”, opposite gender or sexual orientation) aren’t equal, they aren’t people, and so inequality doesn’t count. Abusive individuals, bullies, the corner office Machiavellians, probably tell themselves this kind of thing to justify their own behavior (which, in itself, would probably be hardwired).
But, in the main, genocidal maniacs and corner-office Machiavellians won’t succeed because of self-interest in other potential out-groups: it doesn’t take a huge cognitive leap to realize “if you can de-humanize my next-door neighbor, you can de-humanize me, next. ” That’s why these little groups of dictators need to coerce — and terrorize — their own. Beheading videos go a long way toward keeping others in the fold. Random firing or office bullying goes a long way toward making everyone else tow the corporate line.

This is from the Wall Street Journal — (excerpts):

Wall Street Journal Online Edition

Charting the Agony Of a Brain as It Struggles to Be Fair

WSJ Online, October 12, 2007; Page B1

. . . To trigger the brain behavior, the 26 volunteers had to believe their decisions really would affect orphans being denied their seat at a groaning board of plenty where others feasted. So, the experimenters made them all study a 10-page brochure with pictures of 60 orphans [Swivelchair note: The article describes the researchers contacted representatives of an African orphanage, and obtained proper consent as the children were not affected in reality].

In 36 rounds of testing, each subject had 10 seconds to choose the lesser of two evils: Allow some children to keep more than their fair share of meals or take away their food to eliminate inequity.

It was a measure of the economics of morality. Dr. Hsu made the inequities more or less severe by changing the number of meals donated to different groups of children. That provoked patterns of neural activation that revealed the brain’s distaste for injustice and its willingness if the disparity was wide enough — in one case, one child receiving five times more than another — to punish the rich by putting them on short rations. To redress the extremes, people were willing to confiscate meals even when it hurt the orphanage as a whole, Dr. Hsu, now at the University of Illinois, reported recently at a meeting of the Society for Neuroeconomics in Nantasket, Mass. . . .