Treated Unfairly? Here's Why You're Sore
Brain Imaging Studies Show Fair Treatment Activates Portion of Brain Linked to Happiness
WebMD News Archive
April 18, 2008 -- There's no escaping the fact that life isn't always fair,
but that usually doesn't make unfair treatment any easier to accept. Now new
brain imaging studies may help explain why.
The research shows that being on
the receiving end of fair treatment is rewarding, activating the same portion
of the brain that responds to basic rewards, like food, in rats.
Being treated unfairly was shown to activate a region of the brain
previously linked to negative emotions, such as moral disgust.
UCLA researchers combined brain imaging with an established psychological
test of fairness called the "ultimatum game" to visualize the brain's
reaction to fairness.
"The same parts of the brain that get activated in response to very
basic rewards get activated in response to fairness," researcher and UCLA
psychologist Golnaz Tabibnia, PhD, tells WebMD.
Fairness and the Brain
The game involves two players who have to agree on how to share a specific
amount of money, with one player -- the proposer -- deciding on the amount each
will get and the other player -- the responder -- determining if the offer is
fair and will be accepted.
If the responder finds the offer too unfair to accept, neither player gets
In the UCLA experiment, the game was fixed to present the responder with a
range of very fair and unfair offers. The idea was to see how the brain
responded to different fairness scenarios.
When the responder received a fair offer of $5 out of $10, the imaging
showed the areas of the brain most closely tied to happiness to be highly
When the responders were offered the same amount of money but in a less fair
scenario -- $5 out of $23, for example -- the region of the brain closely
linked to negative emotion was usually activated, Tabibnia says.
The study appears in the April issue of the journal Psychological
The findings confirm and expand on earlier research showing that fairness is
often more important to people than monetary reward.
"When an offer is pretty unfair -- say 20% of the total -- about half
the time responders will reject it," Tabibnia says.
The study also shows fairness processing to be "relatively automatic and
intuitive," the researchers note.
Not all of the study participants rejected the unfair offers, and when this
happened the monetary gain did not usually activate the regions of the brain
linked to happiness and reward.
The imaging did show increased activity in the part of the brain associated
with emotion control when unfair offers were accepted, which appeared to have
tempered the activity of the disgust response, Tabibnia says.
"When people accepted these offers, essentially swallowing their pride,
we could see what resembled a
down regulating of the indignity response in the brain," she says.
'Seeing' the Mind-Brain Connection
The study joins a growing body of research employing functional brain
imaging to show the connection between the brain and the mind, says Joy Hirsch,
PhD, who directs the Program for Imaging and Cognitive Sciences at New York's
"Science is about seeing, and that is what this lets us do," she
says. "We are now able to show not just the structure of the brain, but the
structure of the brain in action -- its reaction to emotions like happiness,
sadness, and even fairness."
The ability to visualize in real time the brain's response to social
interactions should advance the understanding of how the mind works, she
"We had never thought of things like ethics or fairness as being tied to
neurons, but they are," Hirsch says.