Team A racked up eighteen fouls in the first half of the basketball game and Team B had none. I rooted for Team A, but sat by a friend rooting for Team B. After about the twelfth foul against Team A, my friend from Team B commented, “This just isn’t right. I don’t like watching a game like this even though we are winning. It’s only fun if it’s fair.”

It turns out we all have a strong desire for life to be fair.

Have you hear of the ultimatum game? It works like this:

Two strangers are put in a room and Person A is given $10 with the instruction that he or she has to share with Person B. There are no instructions about how much Person A has to share with Person B, but they have to share. If Person A refuses to share, neither one gets any cash. If person B refuses to accept what Person A gives, neither one gets any cash.

Researchers discovered that almost every time, if Person A did not share 50/50, Person B would refuse the offer leaving them both with out any cash.

“So strong is our sense of fairness that, to prevent others getting more than their fair share, we are often willing to take less for ourselves.” – Peter Singer in The Life You Can Save.

 It turns out that monkeys are the same way. Researchers Brosnan and de Waal discovered that “even monkeys will reject a reward for a task if they see another monkey getting better reward for performing the same task.”[i]

A desire for life to be fair produces:

  • Harmony in the family as all children are treated fairly
  • Productivity in the work place as employees who believe they are treated fairly will be much more engaged and successful
  • A community that can work together because they share the goal of the common good, and the common good always involves fairness

Although most parents have explained ad infinitum, ad nauseam, that life is not fair, most of us still work hard to make life fair.

Peppered throughout the crowd at that basketball game, you could hear people from both Teams A and B shout, “Hey ref, call it the same on both ends!”

Even monkeys want life to be fair.

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[i] S.F. Brosnan and F.B.M. de Waal, “Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay,” Nature 425 (September 18, 2003), pp. 297-299.