A little over three years ago I wrote a post that I go back and refer to every now and again because it helps me remember some specific ways that we react to criticism and uncertainty.
The post was about SCARF, which is an acronym to describe “five domains of social experience” which our brains consider to be so important that it treats them the same way it treats survival issues.
That last phrase has been bolded to encourage you to slow down and let the importance of those words sink in. This is involuntary, deep-in-the-brain-stem stuff.
These five critical areas that drive much of our response are Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. In my original post, I wrote the following about Fairness:
“Humans are the only species in lab experiments who will harm their own self-interest due to a perceived lack of fairness. Never underestimate a person’s sense of fairness – they may sacrifice their own self-interest for it’s sake.”
Which brings us to the subject of monkeys – or, better put – monkeys as the subject (of lab experiments).
It appears that (shock!) I may have been incorrect. It turns out that humans are NOT the “only species in lab experiments” who will contradict their self-interest due to perceived unfairness. According to this article, researchers
“…demonstrated that monkeys trained to give a token to a human experimenter in exchange for a piece of cucumber would start refusing to participate when they witnessed another monkey receiving a tastier grape for the same effort. The monkeys were particularly upset when grapes were given to another monkey for no effort at all, sometimes throwing the (formerly satisfactory) cucumber in protest.”
Watch this entertaining video to see it for yourself.
The notion of fairness is deeply wired into the human brain. There are differing theories as to why this is so, but it is clear that independent of cultural upbringing, humans demonstrate a strong sense of fairness at a very early age.
What this means for you
Unlike children who yell “unfair!” when they think they’ve been maligned, adults tend to think it more than they say it. As you’re rewarding one person, or criticizing another, know that someone might react in some unexpected way due to a perceived lack of fairness. They may throw a cucumber at you (metaphorically, hopefully).
You can’t please everyone all the time. We’ve all learned that describing something as “unfair” can be the refuge of someone who is “undeserving”. But analyzing your decisions beforehand for perceived (and real) unfairness is time well spent for any leader.