Equality


Stuff I couldn’t stuff into the book,

but that I think is pretty interesting…
(mostly on the brain science around Equality)

Just like our individuality is in-born, so is our need for equality. Studies across cultures have shown for years that we humans have a general and shared sense of what is fair in dealing with others. But better scientific tools are allowing us to understand how we accomplish that shared understanding.

Fits of inequality

Another study by UCLA Professor Golnaz Tabibnia and her colleagues (“The Sunny Side of Fairness” Psychological Science, v 19, 2008) shows that not only do our brains’ rewards centers light up in an fMRI scan when we are offered a fair proposal, but when we accept a less than fair proposal—even though we’re making a net “gain” on the proposal—the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior insula show increased activity. These are the areas of the brain known for regulating self-control and negative feelings. We control our negative emotions about less equal dealings—we accept the proposal but have to swallow our pride in the process.

Studies on primate behavior show the same equality gauges are built into monkeys as well. In a study published in Nature in 2003 (“Monkeys reject unequal pay”) researchers Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal found that capuchin monkeys would reject a normally desirable object—a piece of carrot—if another monkey received a better object—a grape—at the same time. Some of the monkeys were so outraged that they literally threw the “unequal” object back in the face of the researcher.

And, to chimpanzees, inequality that is intentional is the worst of all. If a researcher is trying to reach a piece of fruit to give to them, but can’t reach it, chimps are not terribly bothered. However, if the researcher obviously can reach the fruit and chooses not to, the chimpanzee test subjects throw a tantrum. (Call and Tomasello, “Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? 30 years later.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, May 2008)

Reducing revulsion

Interestingly, we humans have built in a social override to inequality. If we perceive a process as having been fair, then we are more ready to accept an unequal outcome. When burqas were banned for Muslim women in France, the inequality of some people being able to wear their culturally-appropriate clothing and others not being allowed to do so might have been cause for “tantrums.” And in fact there were demonstrations. But for the most part, because 70% of the French population is in favor of a ban, the outcome was acceptable to many of those who being treated unequally.

So, while Relationships may be an important damper on some of our natural feelings of Equality, there is also an argument that Equality has actually limited the way we enact Relationships. As discussed in the Relationships chapter in the book, Dunbar found 150 was the maximum number of humans in a pre-industrial community needed to support all of the skills necessary for semi-independence. With that size group, you could be self-sufficient and didn’t need to have much contact with the outside world. Interestingly, when the 150 number was exceeded, farming communities tended to split into two “sister cities.” Since we seem able to maintain a mental database of about 150 people, we can use social relationships to enforce fairness up to about that amount. Above that, we lose track of people … and in so doing run the risk of being swindled by a stranger. Communities split when the ability to recognize and enforce fairness is no long possible.

Math and being sorry

Marc Hauser at Harvard has suggested that the brain’s ability for mathematics may have grown out of our need to calculate equality. We want to make sure that we are getting and giving about the same amounts. Our reward centers are most happy when that balance sheet with other people is even, so we figured out how to do math.

Once we know we’ve been wronged—either because we did the math, or it was just obvious—we have a tendency to want to get revenge. It is our way of making the world fair again—an eye for an eye. Nevertheless, a study by Ohbuchi, et. al., in 1989 (“Apology as aggression control: Its role in mediating appraisal of and response to harm.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, v. 56) showed that a simple “I’m sorry” can go a long way toward making us feel less negativity—and lessen our potential for retribution—toward those who have wronged us. In addition, Harvard psychologists, Craig Smith and Paul Harris, have found that apologies play another role in children. (“He didn’t want me to feel sad: Children’s reactions to disappointment and apology.” Social Development, May 2012, pp 215-228) When someone says “Sorry” to us, it reaffirms our model of right and wrong in the world. It says to us that we were justified in feeling that something was unequal in the first place—that we weren’t wrong when we felt hurt by some else’s actions. They knew it was wrong too—which reinforces our view of the world as just and predictable.

Why not more equality?

With so much natural brainpower focused on Equality, why is the world such an unfair place still? The poorest ten percent of earth’s population earn less than 2.5% of the world’s income. And when it comes to accumulated wealth the story is even less equal, the top 10% of the world’s adults control about 85% of the world’s global household wealth. (World Institute for Development Economics Research, 2006)

Between 1980 and 2000, there was some indication that global inequality was decreasing, but those numbers have increased again in the last ten years.

It may be exactly this tension among Growth, Individuality and Equality—in the context of Relationships—that keeps the world from ever being completely equal. We individually want to gain more—knowing that it means others may lose something in the process. But we are always pleased when those with less actually gain and even catch up. Also, it is this balance of these Goods that creates an interesting equilibrium where there will never be complete Equality, but we’ll try to even it out to a point. Interestingly, the Good explored in the next section—Belief—is one important way that we’ve learned to cope with these natural conflicts amongst Goods.

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