That’s Not Fair

What revolves around the Earth?

“Henri looked down in concentration as the answer choices were read aloud: (A) The moon, (B) The sun, (C) Mars, (D) Venus.  Henri reread the question out loud and mulled the choices over in his head.  As the ominous music continued to play, he bit his lip.  Seeing the contestant’s puzzlement turn into genuine consternation, the host offered some advice: “Take your time, and if you have any doubts, use a lifeline.”

“Needing all the help he could get, Henri decided to invoke his “ask the audience” lifeline.  The camera panned across the French audience, capturing the dismay on their faces — a sign that they had made a diagnostic decision about Henri.  Only 42 percent of the audience voted for the right answer.  A full 46 percent voted for the sun revolving around the Earth.”

Procedural Justice

Why would the French audience deliberately give Henri the wrong answer?  For the same reason that people from western cultures agree to split the money evenly in the following game:

Subject A and Subject B are placed in two different rooms.  Their identities are not disclosed and they are not allowed to communicate with each other in any way.  I give $100 to Subject A, who must divide this money between himself and Subject B.  He can make only one offer to B, and if B rejects that offer, neither get any money and the game is over.

Now, the rational answer is for B to take any and every offer made by A.  Any amount is more valuable than zero, the amount B gets if he rejects.  This is precisely what happens in some cultures around the world, such as the Machiguenga tribe in the Amazon.  In their view, they weren’t being treated unfairly by the offeror; instead they were just unlucky that they didn’t get to be the offeror.  They’ll take pretty much any offer that’s made, with the most common split being 85/15 in favor of the offeror.  The exception is with those tribe members who have spent significant time in the Western world.

Here, in the West, the most common offer is 50/50, which the offeree always accepts.  When asked if they would have accepted an 80/20 split, more generous than the most common Machiguenga split, nearly every offeree scoffed, saying he’d rather walk away empty handed than be treated unfairly, which some subjects did after refusing to accept “unfair” offers.  Interestingly though, when the offerror was replaced with a computer, nobody rejected the same unfair splits.

It’s the process, not the result, that makes us behave irrationally.

Millionaire’s Aren’t Fair

If we watch Millionaire in America, the ask the audience lifeline is probably the best bet: the audience gives the contestant the right answer over 90% of the time.  But, as Henri demonstrates, other Western cultures do not.  The producers of the Russian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire noticed that Russian audiences routinely gave contestants the wrong answer, deliberately misleading both smart and dumb contestants alike.

Ori and Rom Brafman, in their book Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, suggest that the French and Russians have different senses of fairness than Americans.  In France, if you’re not smart enough to get the easy questions right, you don’t deserve to move on.

In Russia, for hundreds of years, peasant communities were based on joint responsibility, which required everyone to act together and lend one another a hand.  This thinking was brought to the cities as the USSR industrialized and still permeates Russian culture.  This thinking also made it dangerous to stand out: if you were too poor you became a drag on the entire community.  If you were rich, you likely did something illegal, which again threatened the whole community.  This skeptical and jealous view toward wealth was only buttressed by the Oligarchs who made massive amounts of fast money dismantling and exploiting the country after the USSR collapsed.

The Brafmans suggest that the Russian Millionaire audiences see contestants “as trying to get rich on the backs of the audience members — and why should they contribute to such unfair behavior?”  If they can’t do it on their own, they don’t deserve it.

Cultural Relativism

So what is fair, then?  Well, it depends on where you are and who you’re dealing with. It’s important to understand their concept of fairness, because it may very well be different from yours.  Walking through the reasoning behind your offers, or positions, or decisions, will go along ways towards getting what you want.


Note: This post borrows from Ori and Rom Brafman’s Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior.  It’s an extremely interesting and easy read, that can definitely add some value to your life.  I highly recommend it.

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