Society is held together by many unspoken rules of fairness, and maintaining rules of fairness is messy but rewarding work. We don’t just advocate for fairness in our own lives, but will go out of our way to call out unfairness when we see it hampering the lives of others. We will protest, march in the streets, and post outraged messages on social media to call out the unfairness we see in the world, even if we are not directly affected by it or even stand to gain by an unfair status quo.
Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow, shares some research studying our efforts to maintain the rules of fairness and why we are so drawn to it. He writes, “Remarkably, altruistic punishment is accompanied by increased activity in the pleasure centers of the brain. It appears that maintaining the social order and the rules of fairness in this fashion is its own reward.”
This idea reminds me of Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain, where Hanson suggests a staggering amount of human behavior is little more than signaling. Much of what we do is not about the high-minded rational that we attach to our actions. Much of what we do is about something else, and our stated rationales are little more than pretext and excuses. Altruistic punishment, or going out of our way to inflicting some sort of punishment (verbal reprimands, loss of a job, or imprisonment) is not necessarily about the person who was treated unfairly or the person who was being unfair to others. It is quite plausibly more about our own pleasure, and about the maintenance or establishment of a social order that we presumably will benefit from, and about signaling to the rest of society that are someone who believes in the rules and will adhere to strict moral principles.
Troublingly, Kahneman continues, “Altruistic punishment could well be the glue that holds societies together. However, our brains are not designed to reward generosity as reliably as they punish meanness. Here again, we find a marked asymmetry between losses and gains.”
The second part of Kahneman’s quote is referring to biases in our mental thinking, connecting our meanness or niceness toward others with our tendency toward loss aversion. Losses have a bigger mental impact on us than gains. We might not be consciously aware of this, but our actions – our willingness to inflict losses on others and our reluctance to endow gains on others – seems to reflect this mental bias. We are creating social order by threatening others with loss of social standing at all times, but only with minimal hope of gaining and improving social standing. Going back to the Hansonian framework from earlier, this makes sense. A gain in social status for another person is to some extent a loss to ourselves. Maintaining the social order involves maintaining or improving our relative social position. Tearing someone down signals to our allies that we are a valuable team member fighting on the right side, but lifting someone else up only diminishes our relative standing to them (unless they are the leader who we want to signal our alliance with). Kahneman’s quote, when viewed through Robin Hanson’s perspective, is quite troubling for how our social order is built and maintained.