When Lori West's kids complain, "That's not fair!" she responds with, "Wow, you are so smart! You've already learned that, and you're only 6."
West, a 39-year-old stay-at-home mother of five in Virginia Beach, Va., found that her brood began grappling with issues of fairness while they were still toddlers. Research shows we tend to dislike unfair situations, and that this aversion is part of the way the brain reacts to rewards.
One recent study showed that our objection to unfairness holds true even for the person who benefits from the unfair situation. In this study, one of a pair of strangers was randomly designated as rich and given $50 in cash. The other person was "poor" and got no money. Then, as their brains were scanned, each was shown an additional amount of money that one of them might receive.
Fairness and the Brain
It's not surprising that, when the poor man saw the potential of his receiving a bonus, the striatum and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, two areas of the brain that decide how much we like something, showed more activity. What was surprising was that the reward center of the rich man's brain also showed more activity at the idea of the poor man's getting a payout. More surprising was that when the rich man got even more money while the poor one stayed poor, brain activity went down, showing that he found this less rewarding.
It's possible that serotonin, a brain chemical that helps control mood, contributes to the unpleasantness we feel about injustice. Research shows that as serotonin falls, we react more strongly to inequity. In other words, our sense of fairness isn't based entirely on social rules we've learned. It's an integral part of the way our brain responds to rewards: We like to see the underdog win.
From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense, says Elizabeth Tricomi, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University, who conducted the study. "When we cooperate, we all might get something better than if we only cared about ourselves."
Tips for Teaching Children About Fairness
It's probably a mix of nature and nurture that develops our sense of fairness, Tricomi, says. Try these tips to help your kids understand fair play.
Accept their feelings of disgust. There's evidence that moral disgust may develop from our early aversion to icky food. In that case, encouraging a kid to express his gross-outs could make it more likely he'll speak out against injustice as a grown-up.
Empower them. Tricomi says that despite our brains having an innate capacity to evaluate what's right, "we certainly teach our kids about fairness; there's definitely a component we learn early on," she says. Help kids develop this ability by asking questions, such as, "Was that fair? Why or why not?"
Explain and practice. Even if the sense of fairness is rooted in our emotions, we still use judgment to make complex moral decisions. As your kids grow up -- and their brains develop -- continue to point out more sophisticated examples of sharing, as well as injustice.