Sense of Fair Play a Human Trait?

THURSDAY, Aug. 23 (HealthDay News) — Even if they are extremely thirsty, people will refuse an offer of water if they believe the offer is unfair, a new study finds.

The same can’t be said for humans’ nearest relatives, chimps, suggesting that a sense of fairness might be uniquely human.

The findings are important in improving understanding of how people make decisions that must balance self-interest and fairness, according to the researchers.

It’s long been known that when people bargain for money they tend to reject unfair offers, preferring instead to walk away with nothing. Other research has shown that our close relatives, chimpanzees, will almost always accept an offer of food, regardless of whether the offer is fair.

In this study, researchers from the United Kingdom wanted to see if people would also accept an unfair offer for the basic need of water. The team at the Wellcome Trust Center for Neuroimaging at University College London recruited 21 people, 11 of whom were drip-fed a salty liquid to make them especially thirsty.

The participants were told that they could have an eighth of a bottle of water if the person presenting the offer could keep the other seven-eighths of the bottle. The participants had 15 seconds to make a decision and knew that if they rejected the offer they would have to wait an hour to get water.

The participants tended to reject the unfair offer, even if they were extremely thirsty, according to the study published online Aug. 23 in the journal Scientific Reports.

“Whether or not fairness is a uniquely human motivation has been a source of controversy. These findings show that humans, unlike even our closest relatives, chimpanzees, reject an unfair offer of a primary reward like food or water and will do that even when severely thirsty,” study leader Dr. Nick Wright said in a Wellcome Trust news release.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences talks about ethics in research.