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Don’t Take Advantage of Me

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

In its July 21, 2012 edition, The Economist (in an article entitled “ ‘Snot Fair”) discusses a research project conducted by Dr. Nicola Raihani of University College, London and Katherine McAuliffe of Harvard recently published in Biology indicating that people will cry “foul” when they are taken advantage of or cheated out of something in a way that makes the culprit or cheater better off than they were.

Whereas most studies use college students as the participants, these researchers went to Mechanical Turk, run by Amazon, to find their volunteers whom they paid. As a result, they got a lot more volunteers- 560- whose ages ran a wider range than those of college students.

The researchers asked these participants to play a game:

In it, the volunteers were paired and given small sums of money. One member of a pair could then take a predefined sum from the other, or not, as he chose. After that the other could, at a certain cost to himself, impoverish his opponent to a greater degree.

The first player might receive ten cents, 30 cents or 70 cents. The second player always received 70 cents. The first player was then allowed to take 20 cents of the second player’s money. Finally, the second player could reduce the first player’s total sum by 30 cents, but at a cost of ten cents to himself—in other words, he lost money too by doing so.

The crucial point of the game is that in all three cases the second player suffers the same absolute loss if the first chooses to take money from him. The offence, in other words, is identical. But in the first version of the game he remains ahead if he does not retaliate (50 cents v 30 cents), in the second he comes out equal (50 cents v 50 cents), and in the third he ends up behind (50 cents v 90 cents).

The upshot was that in the first two cases about 15% of second players chose to retaliate if they had money taken. This was more or less the same as the number in all three versions of the game who “retaliated” even though they did not have money taken (a course of action allowed by the rules). In the third version, though, more than 40% of second players retaliated when money was taken from them—even though the outcome was still that the first player ended up ahead, with 60 cents to the second player’s 40 cents.

On the face of things, this result suggests that what really gets people’s goat is not so much having money taken, but having it taken in a way that makes the taker better off than the victim…. (Id.)

In sum, people will seek revenge not simply and only for the sake of revenge but when they feel that the offender has become better off as a result of the offense. Obviously, this has implications in any negotiation or mediation. The more one party feels that the other was benefitted by the alleged misdeed, the more “revenge” she will seek, all in the name of “fairness.” People simply do not like to be snookered especially where the snookerer ends up better than the snookeree! So, in analyzing whether a proposal is “fair”, consider it from the perception or viewpoint of the alleged victim- does she feel that the alleged aggressor got the better end of the deal? If so, she will exact her revenge and “fairness” will cost a lot more.

…. 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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