April 20, 2012 / 8:44 PM / 7 years ago

The triumph of the social animal

(Reuters) - Does fairness matter? As France prepares to elect a president this spring and the United States gets ready to elect a president in the autumn, that old philosopher’s chestnut is gaining tremendous real-time political relevance.

Economics, by contrast, hasn’t traditionally been much concerned with fairness. Instead, economists have based their analysis on “Homo economicus,” a model human being who is perfectly rational and perfectly guided by self-interest.

The financial crisis of 2008 made it hard to believe in a world of perfectly rational actors, even when they earn million-dollar salaries and have advanced degrees. Now, a growing body of research is challenging the second part of the definition of Homo economicus — that he is guided purely by self-interest.

The alternate view was advanced by Armin Falk, a Bonn University economist, at a recent economics conference in Berlin organized by the Institute for New Economic Thinking. It emphasizes the importance of fairness and trust to human behavior. This approach takes as its starting point the idea that we are social animals, driven powerfully by how we fit into our community.

The social animal school may sound touchy-feely, but one of its favorite research tools is the M.R.I. That is the machine Dr. Falk and his colleagues used to try to figure out whether we care most about the absolute material reward we get for our work — as a rational Homo economicus should — or whether fairness matters, too.

In one experiment, subjects were paid 50 percent more, the same amount or 50 percent less than a peer for doing the same amount of work. Crucially, the absolute payment the research subject received in each case was identical.

But brain scans showed that fairness had a strong impact at a neurological level. Anyone who has ever held a job or has a sibling won’t be surprised to learn that the most powerful response was evoked when the research subject was underpaid, compared with his identically tasked peer. Interestingly, when researchers simulated low social status in their testers, unfair treatment mattered less. The meek may inherit the earth, but in the meantime they have been conditioned to accept less than their fair share.

In another experiment, Dr. Falk and Ernst Fehr, of the University of Zurich, investigated an issue that should be of great interest to the world’s human resources departments: Does our perception of fairness influence how hard we work? Their answer is yes — workers who are underpaid don’t work as hard.

The two professors’ conclusion was based on the responses of experimental subjects. In his Berlin talk, Dr. Falk also cited an American real-world example that points to the same conclusion. A bitter fight between workers and management at Bridgestone/Firestone’s plant in Decatur, Illinois, in the mid-1990s, including a long strike and the hiring of scabs, coincided with the production of poorer-quality tires.

“Looking before and after the strike and across plants, we find that labor strife at the Decatur plant closely coincided with lower product quality,” a paper on the subject by Alan B. Krueger, a Princeton economist who is now the head of the U.S. president’s Council of Economic Advisers, and Alexandre Mas, also of Princeton, reports. “Monthly data suggest that defects were particularly high around the time concessions were demanded and when large numbers of replacement workers and returning strikers worked side by side.”

Workers who feel they are being treated badly aren’t just unproductive; they can be downright dangerous.

An obvious response to this finding if you are in the H.R. department, particularly if your colleagues in finance are giving you a hard time, is to find ways to control your employees more strictly.

But another study by Dr. Falk, with Michael Kosfeld of Goethe University Frankfurt, suggests that keeping workers on a tight rein can be counterproductive. When our bosses closely monitor our work and restrict our opportunities to slack off, we feel we are not trusted. The counterintuitive result is that the more strictly we are controlled, the less hard we work. Another triumph for the social animal over Homo economicus.

Some of Dr. Falk’s most recent work takes the question of fairness back into the medical laboratory. He and a team of colleagues asked what the physical impact of unfair pay was, this time as measured by our heart rate rather than brain waves. Experimental subjects who felt they were being unfairly paid showed higher heart rate variability, an indicator of stress that has been shown to predict heart disease.

Faulty tires and failing hearts are the grim consequences of unfairness suggested by Dr. Falk’s talk. But the new vision he and like-minded researchers are developing of how human beings operate in the economy is actually rather uplifting. We aren’t driven solely by self-interest; fairness and decency matter, too. Kindness and justice turn out to be useful concepts not just at the pulpit or among philosophers, but also as essential tools in the workplace.

Many employers already know this intuitively. Smart ones will start to apply these findings more explicitly, too.

The next step is to adopt these discoveries about the social animal to our thinking about the broader political economy. In one way or another, this year’s pivotal elections will all be about the economy, stupid. But a sophisticated understanding of how the economy really works means thinking not just about gross domestic product, but about fairness and autonomy, too.

Chrystia Freeland is global editor at large at Reuters.

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