Osborne, Philpot, cuts, fairness and Maggie T

by Apr 12, 2013Fairness1 comment

Approx. Reading Time: 6 minutes
These are baffling times, with many issues to the fore that were central to the controversy around Maggie Thatcher. In a week when we have seen huge tax cuts for the wealthy, we have also seen massive cuts  in income for the disabled and those on housing benefits,  and we also hear increasingly vociferous language being used to condemn those on benefits. The Guardian reported an analysis showing that the government has been using increasingly judgemental, loaded and pejorative  language to attack those on welfare, with many statements about ‘dependency cultures’, ‘addictions’ and describing the issues as ‘entrenched’ (click for article), George  Osborne’s use of the Philpot’s case to support his arguments, linking shocking and perverse acts with a ‘benefits culture’, while condemned by many, might well be an effective ploy.

I wonder if psychology and evolutionary ideas can caste any light on these issues? Evolutionary anthropologist, Christopher Boehm, argued in a  recent article in the New Scientist (click for link)  that our moral senses evolved in small hunter-gatherer communities where everyone knew what other people were doing. He has examined all known studies of hunter-gatherer communities living cut off from settled society and also living as near as can be found to how humans lived for over 25,000 years. In every one he found similar approaches to social order and morality. Greed, selfishness and power hunger were condemned and heavily punished, whether through shaming, or ostracism or even death. These were small scale communities, and the morality that developed had its petty sides too, with rivalry and schadenfraude being rife. However this was not a morality that evolved to deal with unseen acts of greed by bankers and others. These have quietly hijacked the legal and political  structures to enable them to quietly go about their business, leaving the general population with little legal recourse to act on any moral outrage, and also often in the dark about what is really going on.

On the other hand it is easy to attack so-called welfare scroungers. who are seen as taking ‘unfair’ advantage. It seems we have evolved 2 different conceptions of fairness. One is much more to do with equality, again maybe rooted in our evolutionary hunter gatherer pasts. Even children have this. Babies look surprised and older children protest when there is an unequal distribution of goodies. In a typical experiment, some animated giraffes are placed in front of five month old babies and along comes a character with toys, and the giraffes show excitement. When the toys are shared equally the babies barely react, seemingly because they expect fairness. However if one giraffe gets much more than the other, then the babies stare for longer and tend to look perturbed [1].

These same researchers however found that 21 month old babies stared for longer (in surprise or bemusement) when two people were equally rewarded for a task, even though one of them was not pulling their weight. It seems they believed that ‘this is not what is meant to happen’. Similarly  three year olds watching a baking task  believed that the person who stopped trying should not have as many cookies as the one who worked hardest [2]. This is another version of fairness, to do with getting out what one puts in, and is the version that is being milked by those supporting benefits cut.

Johnathon Haidt argues that those on the left and right cannot see eye to eye as they have different conceptions of morality altogether, including different ideas about what is fair [3]. Those on the left, he argues, view morality mainly from the perspective of the two Foundations he calls Care and Harm, both of which are strongly linked to empathy and attachment and they have a more egalitarian idea of fairness, including a belief that it is important to help those in need. Those on the political right often espouse the version of fairness, which is to do with people needing to deserve their rewards, and that it is not fair that people who work hard have to pay for the welfare checks of people who they deem lazy. It seems that  never the twain shall meet.

We are it seems a punitive species. We are more than prepared to sacrifice our own gain to hurt someone else who is being greedy. In experimental games such as the Ultimatum Game (Güth, Schmittberger and Schwarze, 1982) a sum of money is given to one player, say £50 and they must offer a proportion of this to a normally unknown co-player. If the offer is accepted then they can both keep the agreed sums, but if the offer is rejected then neither player gets to keep any money at all. Interestingly despite some cultural variations, just about everywhere that this has been done if the offer is deemed too low (normally between 20 and 40%) the offer is rejected. However as well as based on fairness, the rejections seem, motivated by a desire to punish. When I refuse your offer, I prefer to cut off my nose to spite my own face and get nothing rather than let you get away with four times more than me. Even young children and adolescents  reject unfair offers [4]. What is maybe less savoury is how we take pleasure in punishment, which activates the brains’ reward circuits, such as our nucleus accumbens [5].

Many other such experimental games show a similar tendency to punish unfairness, freeloading and greed. In public goods games, people contribute to a public pot which then gives back more money than it receives, so theoretically everyone benefits the more everyone contributes. However some people try and get away with not contributing. When the possibility of punishing non-contributors is introduced then contributions tend to increase by up to 90% [6].

Interestingly neuroscientists looked at brain activity when we punish people who do not contribute to the public good. When there was a chance of real and effective punishment an area in the brain called the dorsal striaum, which is also central to processing rewards, was very active. Those with the most activation in that brain area disapproved of the antisocial actions most of all [7] and were willing to make the most personal sacrifices in order to be able to punish others.

These are maybe character traits which are not to everyone’s taste. Envy triggers brain activation of our anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Higher activation of these regions predicts not only envy but  also Schadenfreude,the pleasure in someone else’s downfall, and the stronger the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) activation (associated with envy) the stronger the ventral striatum activation (associated with Schadenfreude), after witnessing a fall from grace [8]. This might be what we are seeing in the gleeful responses to Maggie Thatcher’s demise, with street parties celebreating the death of the witch. Our brain’s reward and pleasure circuits light up in response to punishment, and also at the demiseof those we envy or hate[5].

However for punishment to be possible the unfair acts have has to be visible, and there also has to be the means of inflicting a punishment, and neither of these conditions are true in the case of the serious unfairness that has been happening in the world of banking, finance and various forms of tax evasion. However it is easier to stir up envy, disgust and anger against those closer to hand, and it is this I think that is being played on so skilfully by politicians on the right.


[1]        S. Sloane, R. Baillargeon, and D. Premack, ‘Do infants have a sense of fairness?’, Psychol. Sci., vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 196–204, 2012.

[2]        P. Kanngiesser and F. Warneken, ‘Young Children Consider Merit when Sharing Resources with Others’, Plos One, vol. 7, no. 8, p. e43979, Aug. 2012.

[3]        J. Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. London: Allen Lane, 2012.

[4]        M. Sutter, ‘Outcomes versus intentions: On the nature of fair behavior and its development with age’, J. Econ. Psychol., vol. 28, no. 1, pp. 69–78, 2007.

[5]        A. Strobel, J. Zimmermann, A. Schmitz, M. Reuter, S. Lis, S. Windmann, and P. Kirsch, ‘Beyond revenge: neural and genetic bases of altruistic punishment’, neuroimage, vol. 54, no. 1, pp. 671–680, Jan. 2011.

[6]        E. Fehr and S. Gachter, ‘Altruistic punishment in humans’, nature, vol. 415, no. 6868, pp. 137–140, Jan. 2002.

[7]        D. J.-F. de Quervain, U. Fischbacher, V. Treyer, M. Schellhammer, U. Schnyder, A. Buck, and E. Fehr, ‘The Neural Basis of Altruistic Punishment’, science, vol. 305, no. 5688, pp. 1254–1258, Aug. 2004.

[8]        H. Takahashi, M. Kato, M. Matsuura, D. Mobbs, T. Suhara, and Y. Okubo, ‘When Your Gain Is My Pain and Your Pain Is My Gain: Neural Correlates of Envy and Schadenfreude’, science, vol. 323, no. 5916, pp. 937 –939, Feb. 2009.

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