Fairness Tastes Like Ice Cream (RJS)

Fairness Tastes Like Ice Cream (RJS) July 3, 2014

Chapter four of Matthew Lieberman’s book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect bears the interesting title Fairness Tastes Like Chocolate.  Personally I like chocolate, on occasions, in small amounts. But it is nothing to write home about. Now homemade ice cream, with real vanilla, and blueberries (preferably picked in the wild, but farmed will do); that is something to write home about. And quite appropriate for the Fourth of July holiday weekend (well, holiday for those of us in the USA anyway).  And you can add chocolate if you’d like.

But whether it is chocolate or homemade ice cream, the theme of this chapter makes interesting connections with the recent series on the imago Dei and with Jack Collins’s view of the special creation of humanity and the importance of Adam and Eve at the headwaters of the human race.  In this chapter Matthew Lieberman argues that fairness trumps selfishness in humans. We as humans are set apart from other animals in our social nature, we all have a need to belong and feel pain – physical pain – when connections are severed. One consequence of this is that the axiom of self-interest does not really hold. Humans quite often do not act to maximize selfish self-interest.

Being treated fairly activates the brain’s reward mechanisms. This can be tested in a number of ways using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other experimental methods in psychology. The results are quite interesting.

Fairness is one of the many cues we have that we are socially connected. Fair treatment implies that others value us and that when there are resources to be shared in the future, we are likely to get our fair share. Fairness is clearly a more abstract sign of social connection than many others we could imagine, and its important enough that our brain’s reward system is sensitive to it. The same brain regions that are associated with loving the taste of chocolate or any other physical pleasures respond to be treated fairly as well. In a sense then, fairness tastes like chocolate.

This chapter isn’t about fairness per se, but rather about the various social signs, events, and behaviors that reinforce our connection to an individual or the group. Because these tend to activate the brain’s rewards systems, they are referred to as social rewards. Just as social and physical pain share common neurocognitive processes, so to do physical and social rewards share common neurocognitive processes. (p. 74-75)

There are two kinds of social rewards, and both of them are important. There is the social reward that comes when others care for or respect us and the social reward that comes when we care for or treat others well. Both of these activate the areas of the brain associated with pleasure and reward.

Many of the psychological tests performed to investigate human responses involve variants of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. A simple game where two players have to choose to cooperate or defect. Say players A and B are going to split $10. If both choose to cooperate each gets $5. If A cooperates and B defects B gets $10 and A gets $0. If both defect each gets $1.

Here is the interesting result: If player A is not told of B’s decision before hand player A will cooperate 36% of the time – the fear of being taken advantage of wins the battle. Now suppose player A is told of B’s decision before making a decision themselves. If B defects, Player A will always defect. But if B cooperates then Player A also cooperates 61% of the time – despite the fact that they reduce their winnings by cooperating. If Player A chooses to defect there is a guaranteed $10 payoff, but 61% of the time this player will choose to split the $10 with Player B by cooperating.

Even more interesting are fMRI studies – people don’t cooperate out of a sense of obligation. There is a genuine reward response to cooperation even though the player receives a smaller monetary reward. The areas that appear to be associated with reward or pleasure light up, the areas that appear to be associated more strongly with conflicted feelings reflecting duty or obligation do not.

There is more in the chapter – but three big take home messages as I see it.

1. The social reward for fairness is substantial and physical, rooted in the mechanisms and structures of our brains. Richard Dawkins and others suggest that we need to teach generosity and altruism because we are born selfish – but this does not actually seem to be the case.

2. One could argue that the desire for fairness is indeed selfish because it activates the reward mechanism.  Even here though, the fact remains that we are built for altruism and fairness. People can be altruistic for the pleasure of it, but then, as Lieberman points out, selfishness ceases to be a bad thing.

3. And finally – the expectation of selfishness is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The pain of being treated unfairly through the selfishness of others can cause us to act selfishly to avoid the pain. We don’t want to be thought a sucker or an easy touch. If there is going to be a loser, we don’t want to be the one. Connection is the foundation of our being, and it works through both pain and reward networks in the brain.

What does this mean for us? Lieberman doesn’t have a Christian perspective on the results of his work, or on the story he is pulling together to describing human nature, but it seems to me that there are several connections that we can draw. Two of these connections involve the image of God and the nature of the fall.

Richard Middleton (Liberating Image), and a number of other Old Testament scholars see the image of God as a royal and priestly role. Humanity as a whole – male and female – was placed on earth to be the representative and intermediary of God’s power and blessing on earth.  The image of God is not defined by some trait or characteristic that is qualitatively different in kind not just degree from all other animals. Although I am convinced by their arguments that this is the right interpretation of the image and likeness of God, it seems also rather obvious that there are characteristics of humankind that set us apart and enable us to act as the image of God.

Jack Collins (also an Old Testament Scholar) argues in his essay in Four Views on The Historical Adam that an understanding of the image of God as limited to a role and mission is insufficient. There are features that are universally and uniquely human. These are differences in kind not merely in degree. He points to language and art as examples. Collins holds that the differences are the result of supernatural special creation. Biologists, however, will argue that human language, to take one example, is a difference in degree more than kind, and that the major differences in language capacity are related to specific biological changes, including those coded by the FOXP2 gene. One need not invoke anything but natural processes in the development of language. Certainly there are many mysteries here, but it does not seem particularly useful to suggest that the capacity for language must be supernaturally bestowed.

On the other hand, the capacity for language and the importance of social connection may well be divinely ordained characteristics that set us apart, allowing us to be God’s image in this world.  The innate social connection and the capacity for language are synergistic, working together to produce something far greater than the sum of the parts. We convey and understand social connection through language.

This brings us to the fall. But things are not completely as they ought to be. Collins also comments on a universal human longing for the way things ought to be. Relationships are meant to last, but death, deceit, and dishonor sever our relationships leaving pain – and social pain is physical pain. God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes (Ecc 7:29). And he quotes Chesterton … the biblical story shows us “that happiness is not only a hope, but also in some strange manner a memory; and that we are all kings in exile.” (p. 167)

In Fairness Tastes Like Chocolate Lieberman argues that humans we are built for fairness and altruism, with an innate expectation that fairness should trump selfishness. But humans don’t always act on principles of fairness and altruism and we are all tempted to do otherwise at times. In the test described above 61% of the subjects behaved along lines of fairness and altruism (splitting $10 instead of taking it all for themselves) … but 39% didn’t, acting instead in selfish self-interest leaving the other player with nothing. This isn’t an insignificant percentage. In the larger world the examples of actions in selfish self-interest are devastatingly destructive. I don’t agree with Collins that there must be an Adam, an Eve, and an act at the headwaters of the human race. But I do think that there was a “fall” and whatever exactly the fall was, it resulted in a perversion of this  innate expectation for fairness and social connection.  And we know, even now, that something is not as it should be.

What do you think?

Does your experience agree with the idea that humans are built for fairness?

What consequences might this have for us as Christians?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

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