Sunday, October 14, 2007

Fairness on the Brain

Talking about ethics can be scary to some people. People wonder: Whose ethics? Am I ethical? Do I know what ethics is? When I give talks at universities, I therefore refer to the several studies that have shown that primates have an innate sense of fairness. Here is one article in National Geographic, "Monkeys Show Sense of Fairness, Study Says."

The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday on another study supporting this line of thought. The article, titled "Charting the Agony Of a Brain as It Struggles to Be Fair," says that neural analysis of the brain shows humans have a distaste for unfair situations. From the article:

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.

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.

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