Do People Try To Dishonestly Signal Fairness?

“My five-year old, the other day, one of her toys broke, and she demanded I break her sister’s toy to make it fair. And I did.” – Louis CK

This quote appeared in a post of mine around the middle of last month, in which I wanted to draw attention to the fact that a great deal of caution is warranted in inferring preferences for fairness per se from the end-states of economic games. Just because people behaved in ways that resulted in inequality being reduced, it does not necessarily follow that people were consciously acting in those ways to reduce inequality, or that humans have cognitive adaptations designed to do so; to achieve fairness. In fact, I have the opposite take on matter: since achieving equality per se doesn’t necessarily do anything useful, we should not expect to find cognitive mechanisms designed for achieving that end state. In this view, concerns for fairness are byproducts of cognitive systems designed to do other useful things. Fairness, after all, would be – and indeed can only be – an additional restriction to tack onto the range of possible, consequentially-usefully outcomes. As the Louis CK quote makes clear, concerns for fairness might involve doing things which are actively detrimental, like destroying someone else’s property to maintain some kind of equal distribution of resources. As his quote also makes clear, people are, in fact, sometimes willing to do just that.

Which brings us nicely to the topic of fairness and children.

There has been some research on children where an apparent preference for fairness (the Louis CK kind) has been observed. In the first study in a paper by Shaw et al (2012), children, ages 6 to 8, were asked a series of questions so as to be rewarded with colorful erasers (a valued resource for children). The experimenter also told the child that another, non-present child had finished a similar task and, as such, had also earned some erasers. Initially, the experimenter divided four erasers equally between the two, then left the room to retrieve a final eraser they had ostensibly forgotten. The experimenter returned to the room, and asked the child what they should do with the fifth eraser: should the child themselves get it, should the non-present child get it, or should it be thrown away? A remarkable 80% of children suggested that the eraser should be thrown away, rather than taking it for themselves or giving it to the other child. The first thing worth noting here is that children appeared willing to achieve equality through welfare destruction; equality made no one better off here, and at least one person worse off. This is what I meant when I said that achieving equality only limits the possible range of behaviors. The more interesting finding, though, is what happened when children had the available option for non-transparently unfair behavior.

The two other conditions in this first study tracked the possibility that children only wanted to appear fair, without actually being fair. In these conditions, the erasers were placed inside envelops, so as to be concealed from view. In the first of these two conditions, the child was given 1 eraser while the other non-present child was given two. When the experimenter left the room to retrieve the last eraser, a confederate came in and placed an additional eraser inside the child’s envelop and told the child to keep it secret. Then, the experimenter returned with the final eraser and asked the child what they should do with it. In this condition, only 25% of children said the eraser should be thrown away, with the rest opting instead to keep it for themselves; an unfair distribution. The second version of this condition was the same, except it was the non-present child who got the 1 eraser initially, with the confederate adding the same secret eraser to the non-present child’s envelop. In that condition, 60% of children suggested the experimenter should throw away the last eraser, with the remaining 40% keeping it for themselves (making them appear indifferent between a fair distribution or a selfish, unfair one).

So, just to recap, children will publicly attempt to achieve a fair outcome, even though doing so results in worse consequentialist outcomes (there is no material benefit to either child to throwing away an otherwise-valued eraser). However, privately, children are perfectly content to behave unfairly. The proffered explanation for these findings is that children wanted to send a signal of fairness to others publicly, but actually preferred to behave unfairly, and when they had some way of obscuring that they were doing so, they would make use of it. Indeed, findings along these same lines have been demonstrated across a variety of studies in adults as well – appear publicly fair and privately selfish – so the patterns of behavior appear sound. While I think there is certainly something to the signaling model proposed by Shaw et al (2012), I also think the signaling explanation requires some semantic and conceptual tweaking in order to make it work since, as it stands, it doesn’t make good sense. These alterations focus on two main areas: the nature of communication itself and the necessary conditions for signals to evolve, and also on how to precisely conceptualize what signal is – or rather isn’t – being sent, as well as why we ought to expect that state of affairs. Let’s begin by talking honesty.

Liar, Liar, I’m bad a poetry and you have third degree burns now.

The first issue with the signaling explanation involves a basic conceptual point about communication more generally: in order for a receiver to care about a signal from a sender in the first place, the signal needs to (generally) be honest. If I publicly proclaim that I’m a millionaire when I’m actually not, it would behoove listeners to discount what it is I have to say. A dishonest signal is of no value to the receiver. The same logic holds throughout the animal kingdom, which is why ornaments that signal an animal’s state – like the classic peacock tail – are generally very costly to grow, maintain, and survive with. These handicaps ensure the signal’s honesty and make it worth the peahen’s while to respond to. If, on the other hand, the peacocks could display a train without actually being in better condition, the signal value of the trait is lost, and we should expect peahens to eventually evolve in the direction of no longer caring about the signal. The fairness signaling explanation, then, seems to be phrased rather awkwardly: in essence, it would appear to say that, “though people are not actually fair, they try to signal that they are because other people will believe them”. This requires positing that the signal itself is a dishonest one and that receivers care about it. That’s a conceptual problem.

The second issue is that, even if one was actually fair in terms of resource distribution both publicly and privately, it seems unclear to me that one would benefit in any way by signaling that fact about themselves. Understanding why should be fairly easy: partial friends – one’s who are distinctly and deeply interested in promoting your welfare specifically – are more desirable allies than impartial ones. Someone who would treat all people equally, regardless of preexisting social ties, appears to pose no distinct benefits as an association partner. Imagine, for instance, how desirable a romantic partner would be who is just as interested in taking you out for dinner as they are in taking anyone else out. If they don’t treat you special in any way, investing your time in them would be a waste. Similarly, a best friend who is indifferent between spending time with you or someone they just met works as well for the purposes of this example. Signaling you’re truly fair, then, is signaling that you’re not a good social investment. Further, as this experiment demonstrated, achieving fairness can often mean worse outcomes for many. Since the requirement of fairness is a restriction on the range of possible behaviors on can engage it, fairness per se cannot lead to better utilitarian outcomes. Not only would signaling true fairness make you seem like a poor friend, it would also tell others that you’re the type of person who will tend to make worse decisions, overall. This doesn’t paint a pretty picture of fair individuals.

So what are we to make of the children’s curious behavior of throwing out an eraser? My intuition is that children weren’t trying to send a signal of fairness so much as they were trying to avoid sending a signal of partiality. This is a valuable distinction to make, as it makes the signaling explanation immediately more plausible: now, instead of a dishonest signal that needs to be believed, we’re left with the lack of a distinct signal that need not be considered either honest or dishonest. The signal is what’s important, but the children’s goal is avoid letting signals leak, rather than actively sending them. This raises the somewhat-obvious question of why we might expect people to sometimes forgo personal benefits to themselves or others so as to avoid sending a signal of partiality. This is an especially important consideration, as not throwing away a resource can (potentially) be beneficial no matter where it ends up: either directly beneficial in terms of gaining a resource for yourself, or beneficial in terms of initiating or maintaining new alliances if generously given to others. Though I don’t have a more-definite response to that concern, I do have some tentative suggestions.

Most of which sadly request that I, “Go eat a…”, well, you know.

An alternative possibility is that people might wish to, at times, avoid giving other people information pertaining to the extent of their existing partial relationships. If you know, for instance, that I am already deeply invested in friendships with other people, that might make me look like a bad potential investment, as I have, proportionately, fewer available resources to invest in others than if I didn’t have those friendships; I would also have less of a need for additional friends (as I discussed previously). Further, social relationships can come with certain costs or obligations, and there are times where initiating a new relationship with someone is not in your best interests: even if that person might treat you well, associating with them might carry costs from others your new partner has mistreated in the past. Though these potentials might not necessarily explain why the children are behaving the way they do with respect to erasers, it at least gives us a better theoretical grounding from which to start considering the question. What I feel we can be confident about is that the strategy that children are deploying resembles poker players trying to avoid letting other people see what cards they’re holding, rather than trying to lie to other people about what they are. There is some information that it’s not always wise to send out into the world, and some information it’s not worth listening to. Since communication is a two-way street, it’s important to avoid trying to think about each side individually in these matters.

References: Shaw A, Montinari N, Piovesan M, Olson KR, Gino F, & Norton MI (2013). Children Develop a Veil of Fairness. Journal of experimental psychology. General PMID: 23317084

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