What determines the importance of fairness, particularly to strangers? There are no incentives to play fair when dealing with people we don’t know, aren’t related to, and will never interact with again. Evolutionary psychologist might point to carryover effects of living in smaller communities in our distant past. A recent study led by Joseph Henrich hopes to clarify the issue postulating that there is more to it than simply inheriting fairness attitudes. The research team implemented a Social Dilemma like game called Dictator and administered it to a wide variety of populations. They found that modern living Missourians were most likely to share while hunter-gatherer societies, such as those in the Serengeti or the Amazon, were less likely to do so. One might think that these smaller communities would foster a greater sense of social responsibility and be more willing to share but the researchers point out that while there are clear rules and norms for sharing among kin or ingroup members, a sense of responsibility to the other may be absent when dealing with strangers. Practices and norms emphasizing fairness to strangers have developed in other societies and this research points to “market integration” as a possible explanation as this factor was the strongest predictor of fairness attitudes. Market integration was operationalized as the amount of food purchased. In communities where food is hunted, found, or grown people are less likely and willing to share with strangers. But when food is purchased it makes sense that systems would need to develop where strangers (consumers and sellers) can trust one another. The consumer market can’t function is everyone acts selfishly and treats others as if they will act the same. Oddly enough it seems that trust and fairness develop in some cases because they are economically advantageous.
Suggestions for a New Integration in the Psychology of Morality (Sunar, 2009)