What makes people praise an allocation as fair? Fairness is typically investigated in social psychology and social neuroscience as a matter of equal allocations: whether people’s allotments match. But allocations that result in one person benefiting more than others might also be judged as fair; for example, when they function to pay back a favor (reciprocity), or help the person most in need (charity).
This suggests that the extent to which an allocation is judged as morally praiseworthy and fair may be as much about allocators’ intentions as it is about the resulting allotments. In research conducted with Liane Young, we reveal the role of complex social cognition in people’s moral evaluation of resource allocations.
In four studies (total N=324), participants read vignettes involving an allocator giving out a resource using a procedure based either on impartiality, reciprocity or charity. In three behavioral studies, participants morally judged the allocators and reported perceptions of the allocators’ motivations. In the fourth study, participants underwent functional brain imaging as they judged the vignettes.
First, the behavioral studies revealed that reciprocity and charity were the least and most morally praised, respectively, but also shared many other features. They were both rated significantly less fair than impartiality. They were also both rated as more motivated by emotion and consideration of the unique states of individuals compared to impartiality. Impartiality stood apart; it was rated as easiest to judge as “doing the right thing,” unemotional, unmotivated by the unique states of individuals, sourced in standard procedures, and by far, the most fair. Finally, brain imaging results revealed that morally evaluating both reciprocity and charity recruited significantly more activity in brain regions for theory-of-mind (precuneus, VMPFC, DMPFC) compared to impartiality.
These findings suggest that the extent to which allocation procedures do not trigger complex social cognition — e.g., mentalizing about allocators’ motives and relationships — may play an important role in whether people morally evaluate such allocations as fair.
I presented a talk in a symposium at the Society For Personality and Social Psychology Convention on some of these findings: Person-blind and person-based fairness: Investigating the differences among impartiality, charity, and reciprocity.