This shows two brains on scales.
This might in fact encourage our willingness to sacrifice personal benefits for them. Credit: Neuroscience News

Fair Share or Fair Play: Unraveling Our Brain’s Fairness Mechanisms

Summary: Researchers evaluate the neuroscientific aspects of fairness in social settings, examining how we balance personal interests with social norms. Using electric brain stimulation on 60 volunteers, researchers identified key brain regions involved in fairness decisions.

The study highlights our innate preference for equal distribution, regardless of whether it puts us at an advantage or disadvantage. Findings reveal that different brain regions, like the right temporo-parietal junction (rTPJ) and the right lateral prefrontal cortex (rLPFC), play distinct roles in understanding others’ perspectives and reacting to unfairness.

Key Facts:

  1. Humans inherently prefer equitable distribution, even when it contradicts personal gain, a preference evident from early childhood.
  2. The rTPJ is crucial for understanding others’ perspectives and making pro-social decisions, while the rLPFC is involved in rejecting unfair offers and punishing norm violations.
  3. This research employs transcranial alternating current stimulation to explore how specific brain regions and their oscillations influence fairness decisions.

Source: The Conversation

We’ve all been there. You’re dying to grab that last piece of cake on the table during an office meeting, but you are not alone. Perhaps you just cut off a small piece – leaving something behind for your colleagues, who do exactly the same thing. And so you all watch the piece of cake getting smaller and smaller – with nobody wanting to take the last piece.

Whenever we make choices in a social setting about how much we want to share with others we must navigate between our own selfish interests and social norms for fairness.

But how fair are we truly? And under which circumstances do we offer others a fair share of the cake? Neuroscientific research has started revealing answers. Our own team used electric brain stimulation on 60 volunteers to figure out which parts of the brain were involved.

Humans have a strong preference for proactively conforming to social norms – even if there’s no punishment for not doing so. This has been extensively studied with economic games in which participants can decide how to distribute an amount of money between themselves and others.

Past research suggests that we simply prefer an equal split between ourselves and others. Interestingly, this is not only in situations when we are disadvantaged compared to others (disadvantageous inequity) and may have something to gain from the sharing of resources, but also in cases when we are better off than others (advantageous inequity).

This ultimately suggests that our sense of fairness isn’t solely driven by a selfish desire to be better off than others.

What’s more, the preference for a fair share between ourselves and others emerges early in childhood, suggesting it is to some extent hardwired.

The willingness to equally share resources with others persists even at the expense of sacrificing personal benefits. And when others give us an unfair share, we often feel a strong urge to punish them to protect our own interest. However, we typically do this even if it means that both of us end up with nothing in the end.

This raises the question of which psychological mechanisms support actions of different types of fairness decisions. Depending on whether we or the others find ourselves in a less favourable position, do the same psychological mechanisms drive our willingness to ensure a fair share with others?

Understanding others

One explanation for our tendency to be fair, even when we are better off than others, is that we understand other people’s perspectives. This might in fact encourage our willingness to sacrifice personal benefits for them.

Therefore, by taking the other’s perspective into account, we try to create a more equal environment by reducing inequality. Research has suggested that a small brain region facilitates our ability to navigate complex social environments: the right temporo-parietal junction (rTPJ).

The rTPJ plays a crucial role in understanding the thoughts and perspectives of others and might therefore help us make pro-social decisions. Given this, it has been proposed that this brain region contributes to our willingness to sacrifice personal benefits for the sake of others.

But what about when we’re not better off than others? It may be that advantageous and disadvantageous inequity are based on different psychological mechanisms, potentially represented in different brain regions.

Some researchers suggest that the right lateral prefrontal cortex (rLPFC), a brain region which drives the rejection of unfair offers and promotes the decision to punish social norm violators, might be involved. This is what ultimately makes us dislike being treated unfairly, particularly by those who are better off than us – unleashing negative emotions such as anger or envy.

Overcoming selfish motives

Our recent research offers new insights and reveals that the rTPJ and the rLPFC do indeed play different roles when it comes to fairness.

In our experiment, 60 participants made fairness decisions while undergoing a non-invasive type of electric brain stimulation called transcranial alternating current stimulation – applying a current to the scalp over a certain brain area to make it active. This enabled us to assess the involvement of specific brain regions.

Specifically, our study explored whether the same brain rhythms underlie the processes involved in making fairness decisions and take another’s perspective into account. We did that by electrically stimulating each brain area with different types of oscillations, or rhythms, and seeing how that affected people’s fairness decisions.

Our findings provide direct evidence that oscillations in the rTPJ play a crucial role for switching between one’s own and the other’s perspective. And when we do that, it ultimately helps us make proactive, fair decisions that also benefit others. A different type of underlying oscillation in the rLPFC instead seems to make people more utilitarian to overcome their less favourable position.

Future research will need to explore this link more deeply. But it does seem that fairness is not only driven by restricting one’s own selfish desires – which makes sense when you consider that cooperation is probably the single most important factor in the evolutionary success of our species. Being selfish doesn’t always make us successful.

However, the process of trying to make fair decision is, as we all know, complex. The fact that there are different brain regions involved in doing so ultimately shows why this is the case.

We all have the capacity to be selfish. But we are also simply hardwired to balance our own perspective with understanding the minds of others – and empathising with them.

About this social neuroscience research news

Author: Patricia Christian
Source: The Conversation
Contact: Patricia Christian – The Conversation
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.
  1. Would like to see a much larger sample.
    Would also like to see the difference between normal/healthy subjects and those that consider themselves neurodiverse &/or lacking social skills.
    Would also like to learn whether “unfair situations” act as a trigger for folks with various forms of PTSD.
    I would like to know the patterns involved in those individuals who feel so wronged by society that they turn to societal annihilation.
    And finally, I would like to know the patterns of those in government positions; though I sincerely doubt they’d ever offer that up.

  2. I think it would be very useful to have a study (and get it featured in the news) on compliance of power institutions with brain research. For example, the lack of compliance of educational policy with the growing number of findings on increasing cognitive benefits of music in educational curricula is more than odd. It should be clear that everyone benefits from having more people with better developed brain, than less. But, instead, the resulting lack of brain development with focus on balanced hemispheres involvement is the serious health hazard.
    Widespread Zombification and sensory shutdown left with no counterpoint of music/arts based Sensory/Emotional Reawakening is the cause of shut down Pain Alarms to Toxicity.It brought humanity to the brink of PAINLESS EXTINCTION onset in generation of grandkids of today’s adults, according to 60+ global studies on rapidly plummeting sperm counts at 1%, forecasting 0 by 2045. And the recent all continents study showed increase of rate 2.64% – from cumulative effects of toxicity from off-gassing of many consumer products, normalized by irrelevant health and safety standards and addiction to pervading everything toxic life style

Comments are closed.