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Overcoming the impossibility of fairness

We are designed to want fairness and it is very upsetting to us when we don’t get it.

But fairness is impossible to achieve.      

Let’s say you have a small society, perhaps a village or collective who work and live together. A subset of people are designated to figure out how to collect and redistribute goods.    

But they will never get it right, even if they are all completely altruistic leaders. They may decide that distribution of goods will be given out equally to each person. But those with smaller families will say that is not fair because the bigger family gets more than their family while the adults do the same amount of work. 

OK, so if you distribute goods according to how much work the adults put in, the big families will say there is not enough food for their family while the couple without children will be happy.

Then there are the few people who put in effort in a way that is more complicated or requires more skill or education. Should they get more than others? How much?

There will never be something called fairness (equity) for all. It is just not possible.      

Our survival brain: “What about me?

Each of us has a brain that focuses on survival and it looks out for self (and close family).

But we also have another, less powerful, part of our brain that has the capacity to overcome such self-orientation and can think in terms of the ‘good of the whole’. But this social-good part of the brain is miniscule compared to the part that looks out for number one.

We are destined to always debate about what is fair.

This isn’t only about a special collective society or even in a large complex society. The debate about what is fair happens in families, workplaces and teams all the time. Whether it is about who gets the special projects, how are bonuses distributed, who qualifies for a promotion or bonus and who gets to make decisions.

Feelings of unfairness generate a desire for revenge

Individuals will usually see the world from their own perspective and their own best interests. They can be absolutely certain that they see the world clearly and that what is happening is not fair. The brain then builds a story about why it is right to fight back. To revenge, revolt, complain and get back at the perpetrators who created this unfairness.

The self-oriented brain looks for unfairness and it loves vengeance. Revenge feels really good. It might not really fix anything but it feels absolutely right.

How can you work around this self-oriented out-for-revenge brain?

If you are working in a team or organisation:

  • explain this dynamic to your people
  • agree that millimetre-fairness is not achievable or even wanted
  • have people imagine others’ perspectives
  • recognise that when everyone has enough, there can be less stress and fighting
  • discuss “what are the right things to do”, not only those that looks fair to me

Be SAFE & Certain model

Fairness is one of the six elements in our Be SAFE & Certain model that offers key insights into human behaviour. We have pulled together blog posts, mini-courses, research papers and more.

Be SAFE & Certain