Researchers look at procedural fairness and find that people are generally more willing to accept unequal outcomes if they have been achieved by what they perceive as fair means, even where the means are not, strictly speaking, fair.
Democratic societies extensively debate whether social justice can be best achieved via the redistribution of initial opportunities or through the levelling out of final earnings. To contribute to the scientific study of this issue, the Universitat Jaume I (UJI) is taking part in new research which for the first time analyses peoples' reactions to different ways of distributing initial opportunities, revealing that the perception of even the slightest chance of success strongly influences an individual's perception of social justice.
The study was carried out by a group of researchers at the UJI and the universities of Warwick (UK) and New Delhi (India). It was recently published in the Experimental Economics journal.
The work is the first to chart people's responses to different levels of inequality in the way opportunities are allocated. Researchers used an experimental redistribution game called the Ultimatum Game, in which two people participate in clearly defined roles as either "proposer" or "receiver." The proposer has a sum of money and must propose to the receiver how that money might be divided between the two of them. The receiver can either accept or reject the proposed distribution of funds. If the receiver rejects the offer, neither party goes home with any of the money. Obviously, the role of proposer is the most advantageous, and they usually go home with more money than the receivers.
Over various sessions, the fairness of the procedure for determining who was proposer and who was receiver was manipulated in the form of a lottery that assigned participants either equal or weighted probabilities of becoming the proposer. This meant that sometimes the procedure was completely fair, other times less so. The idea was to analyse how people reacted to the extreme case of complete inequality, where one person had no chance whatsover of becoming the proposer, and then compare it to a scenario where the disadvantaged player was instead given a glimmer of a chance: a 1% likelihood of becoming the proposer.
As UJI researcher Gianluca Grimalda tells us, "until now, theoretical and empirical studies have only compared the two extremes: perfect equality, where both players have the same chances, and perfect inequality, where one person has no chance at all. Here we have studied various intermediate opportunity distributions, such as, for example, where one person has an 80% chance of winning and the other the remaining 20%."
We all just want a chance
The study revealed that people place considerable value on the fact of having even the slightest chance, 1% in some cases, of occupying the position of power, compared to having no chance at all. For the researchers, this confirms the fundamental value of the perception of being included in society, even if this inclusion is entirely symbolic.
As Grimalda explains, "the fact that people consider it so important to have a minimum chance can be something very positive and very negative at the same time. On the one hand, it means that if people see that they have a chance of being successful in life, even if this chance is minimal, their level of satisfaction within society will improve greatly. In other words, it is very important for the social fabric that everybody sees that they have a chance, however small, of being successful. On the other hand, the downside is that this can be easily exploited by an opportunistic government to justify non-investment in equal opportunities, with the excuse that it is enough for people to feel they have a chance. This is clearly paradoxical and not at all desirable."
According to the study, the fairest procedures lead to a lower probability of the receiver rejecting unequal end gains, which suggests that individual perception of social justice does not necessarily correspond to how objectively fair a society is. The research shows that people are more likely to reject an unequal result when they see a clear injustice in the system. Even a slight increase in equality in the distribution of opportunities seems to have significant impact on the individual perception of social justice. As Grimalda points out, "our study confirms the fundamental role of the existence of opportunities in a person's perception of being included in society, leading to their appraisal of society as fairer. By way of example, the symbolic opportunity to have a say in collective decision-making to resolve a problem sustains the propensity of the subjects to see the situation as significantly fairer than when this opportunity is denied."
For Grimalda, the fact that individual perception of social justice differs from how objectively fair a society is, is one of the key issues: "As already demonstrated, human beings are very bad at managing risk; we tend to place disproportionate value on events that are very unlikely. To counter this, we need to educate people to become more rational when managing risks and likelihoods, and we have to give them precise information about what their real chances of social success are."
This study contributes to the assessment of distributive fairness in our societies. The fact that fairness is perceived through the existence of opportunities can be used to improve our social fabric and should be taken into consideration, though not exploited, by our governments accordingly: "Policies devoted to improving opportunities for disadvantaged groups should incorporate perception into their design in order to increase their scope and maximise their social efficiency."
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