05/05/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Dark Side of The Secret : Empathy and Inequality

If you have more than one child-- or have ever been in a situation where there are many small but verbal kids-- you've probably heard an outraged cry of "That's not fair!" more than once. But-- as we note in Born for Love-- this isn't something most parents deliberately teach their kids. I'm certainly sure that my mom and dad never taught me to painstakingly examine any gifts my sisters or brother received to ensure that they weren't bigger or better than the ones I got. What parent would be crazy enough to do that?

Of course, we do want our kids to learn a sense of fairness and justice. Fortunately-- like empathy-- this seems to be an inbuilt capacity. Like empathy, however, a passion for fairness is reliant on environmental conditions. Jonah Lerer reports here on some new research that illustrates this. It builds on early studies on something called the "ultimatum game."

The game works like this. Two people are given an amount of money to split. The first person gets to choose how the sum will be divided. The second can either accept or reject the split-but if he or she rejects it, neither party gets to keep any money. Economists predicted that basically, the second party should accept any amount, given that some free money is better than none.

People with insight into psychology-- and most parents-- know better. If the first person takes $9 and gives the second $1, the second will often reject the offer because, well, "It's not fair!" You would rather that a greedy stranger gets nothing than allow him to get away with such a stingy offer. Cross-culturally, this finding holds up.

The new research involved brain scanning and people who were given different amounts of money before they entered the scanner. They were also told about the amounts that other people in the experiment were getting. The scans zeroed in on a brain region involved with the experience of pleasure.

Interestingly, people who had been given larger amounts of money first were happier to see those they knew had started with less get extra money than they were to see the money go to themselves!

Equality and fairness gives us a natural sense of pleasure-- just as injustice and inequity frequently causes anger. If you are feeling rich, you are happier when others aren't unfairly made poor.

However, there's an important twist to the research: people who take a written test before playing the "ultimatum game" tend to see their assignment to be the person who hands out the money as a sign of merit, not a random occurrence. As a result of this feeling of superiority, they become more stingy when dividing the pot.

Belief that you "deserve" to be rewarded can easily create an acceptance of inequality. And this is very frightening in the context of a lot of the self-help and psychological advice that is popular in America today. Books like The Secret, ideas like those promoted by "motivational speakers" and weekend "seminars" and religious notions of a "prosperity gospel" fundamentally emphasize the idea that we get what we deserve.

This means, of course, that if you're poor or unemployed or sick, that's fair: it's what the "universe" says should be true. If you practice what these books and speakers preach and don't prosper, you are doing it wrong-- or, you simply are meant not to thrive. Economic or biological reality has no role in it from this perspective: the idea is that you are completely responsible for your own fate.

These philosophies justify a world of little empathy for the poor and unlucky. Conveniently and not coincidentally, they also provide self-justification for the rich and healthy to avoid feeling uncomfortable with inequality.

We have a natural sense of fairness and a natural distaste for extreme inequality. However, we also have many ways to rationalize these empathic traits away. While it can be useful to look at your responsibility for your choices in life, it's also important to realize that the world can sometimes be truly unfair-- and the discomfort that this makes us feel should make us work to mitigate injustice, not deny it. [Cross-posted from Born for Love Blog]

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