09/09/2012 10:14 am ET

What We Really Think About Fairness

By Amy Kraft
(Click here for the original article and podcast)

They say that all’s fair in love and war. But when it comes to making a deal, people have very definite ideas about what’s fair: a recent study found that people will let a basic physiological need go unfulfilled rather than accept an unfair transaction.

Researchers induced either moderate or severe thirst in volunteers. Then pairs of thirsty subjects were asked to split a bottle of water.

Unbeknownst to the participants, the experiment was arranged so that everyone thought they’d be receiving less water than their opponent was getting. And a majority of the participants—even the very thirsty ones—rejected the apparently unfair offer. Meaning that neither they nor their partner got to take a drink.

The research is in the journal Scientific Reports. [Nicholas D. Wright et al., Human responses to unfairness with primary rewards and their biological limits]

Past research has shown that humans will also reject unfair offers in games played for money. This study was the first to show that people react in the same way when bargaining for a necessity. Nobody ever said life was fair—but we still want it to be.