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Another Study on Fairness

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

Once again, chimpanzees have been the subject of another study on “fairness”. Researchers in Georgia claim they now have “…the best laboratory evidence yet that chimpanzees have a human-style sense of fairness.” Those who have reviewed the study believe the study is flawed and opine that a sense of fairness is uniquely human.

Researchers have wondered how long ago did our ancestors acquire a sense of “fairness”? The latest research, published a few weeks ago, claims that this sense of fairness arose millions of years ago, “… before our ancestors split off from the evolutionary lines leading to other primates.” (Id.) The principal author of the study is Darby Proctor of Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. His co-author Frans de Waal, Director of Emory’s Living Links Center said:

“We’ve concluded that chimpanzees not only get very close to the human sense of fairness, but the animals may actually have exactly the same preferences as our own species.”

Other researchers including Keith Jensen of the University of Manchester question this latest study. Mr. Jensen believes that “our sense of fairness is a derived trait and may be unique to the human race.” (Id.)

One of the reasons that Mr. Jensen takes issue with the latest study is due to the results of the “ultimatum game” used in the study:

“The concept [ultimatum game] refers to an arrangement in which one player makes a proposal to another player to split up a reward. For example, a parent may offer six stickers to a little girl, on the condition that she divides the treasure with her brother. …If the shares are totally determined by the little girl…their offer to the partner tends to be as low as possible. That’s what’s known as the ‘dictator game.’ But if the other partner has the power to veto a deal, it gets more complex. Make too low of an offer, and the partner may reject the proposition out of spite- even though the result is that no one gets a reward. That’s the ‘ultimatum game.’” (Id.)

The researchers in Georgia found that none of the chimps turned down an unequal split. To Mr. Jensen, this is the “fatal flaw” in the study. As Mr. Jensen explains:

“The ultimatum game hinges on the responder….If the responder didn’t understand the option of refusing, I would simply say the study did not work.”(Id.)

Whether the study is flawed, the issue still remains: what is “fair”? We each have a “sense of fairness” although our respective definitions of “fairness” will differ. Otherwise, there would be no lawsuits or disputes and to the contrary, we would all get along. Isn’t it true, that ultimately, disputes are all about “fairness” or the lack of it? Thus, to get to the bottom of the dispute, one must look at “fairness” from each party’s perspective, not just your own. What is “fair” to me may not be “fair” to you… and that IS the crux of the matter.

The next time you find yourself at odds with someone, think in terms of “fairness”. What is “fair” to me? What is “fair” to the other person from her perspective? Stand in her shoes, so to speak, and ask whether what you are proposing is “fair” from her vantage point. If you were the other person, how would you react to your own proposal? Without doubt, depending on if you are standing in your own shoes, or those of the other person, the response to these questions will be different.

… Just something to think about!


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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