more on: norms

New Research on Norms about Fairness

+ Brandon Fuller

The Economist recently covered a new study by Nicola Raihani and Katherine McAuliffe. They extend the body of experimental work on ultimatum games and raise interesting questions regarding social norms about fairness.

In the classic ultimatum game, a proposer receives a sum of money and decides how to divide it up between herself and a responder. The responder can either accept the proposed split or turn it down. If the responder refuses the proposal, neither player receives any money. Traditional economics models, which do not account for social norms about fairness, suggest that responders will accept any non-zero offer as even a small amount makes them better off. Yet results repeatedly suggest that responders are willing to incur the cost of forgone payment to punish proposals they perceive to be unfair. Raihani and McAuliffe attempted to shed additional light on what constitutes unfair behavior.

To do so they designed a different game, one in which the first player receives either 10 cents, 30 cents, or 70 cents. The second player always received 70 cents. In Round 1, the first player is given a choice about whether to take 20 cents from the second player. If she decides to take 20 cents from Player 2, Player 1 will end up in one of three possible scenarios, depending on her initial endowment:

  1. Player 1 receives 10 cents, takes 20 cents, ends up with 30 cents.
  2. Player 1 receives 30 cents, takes 20 cents, ends up with 50 cents.
  3. Player 1 receives 70 cents, takes 20 cents, ends up with 90 cents.

In each of these scenarios, Player 2 is left with 50 cents. In other words, despite the loss of 20 cents, Player 2 remains better off than Player 1 in the first scenario. In the second scenario they end up with 50 cents each and in the third Player 2 comes out behind, left with only 50 cents compared to the 90 cents of Player 1. In Round 2, Player 2 has the option of paying 10 cents to impose a loss of 30 cents on Player 1, regardless of whether Player 1 chose to take money from Player 2.

The upshot was that in the first two [scenarios] 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.

One interesting follow-up might be to play the game with people from different societies, as other researchers have done with various versions of the ultimatum game. Existing research suggests that social norms about fairness vary considerably across different social groups. For example, compared to people in somewhat isolated smaller-scale societies, people in larger-scale societies—where anonymous interactions are fairly commonplace—tend to show heightened concern with fairness and a greater willingness to punish the unfair behavior of strangers.

Back to top
see comments ()