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Are We Born With a Sense of Fairness?

Evolutionary biologist Gordon Orians and I are working on a project to investigate the origins and evolution of the human sense of fairness, and the role it plays in modern social, economic, and political institutions. I recently gave a talk on the subject.

To begin the talk, I asked the audience members to recollect their first encounter with the concept of fairness. I had formed a fledgling hypothesis, and wanted to put it to the test.

As people raised their hands, I called on them to share their memories. A pattern quickly emerged:

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“I had to take the rap for something my sister actually did!”

“My parents gave my brother a puppy, and I’m the one who loved dogs. He didn’t even like them.”

“I came from a family with nine siblings, and we had to fight each other for food.”

“I was an only child, and I really wanted a brother – all my friends had brothers.”

“I was foreign, and different, and all the other kids singled me out to pick on.”

Everyone—100 percent of an admittedly tiny sample—remembered their first encounter with fairness in its negative incarnation. My hypothesis is that this pattern holds, if not universally, at least in a very high percentage of individuals.

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