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Health & Parenting

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Teaching Children to Be Fair

Fairness doesn't just come from good manners. It appears to be hardwired into our brains.
WebMD Magazine - Feature

When Lori West's kids complain, "That's not fair!" she responds with, "Wow, you are so smart! You've already learned that, and you're only 6."

West, a 39-year-old stay-at-home mother of five in Virginia Beach, Va., found that her brood began grappling with issues of fairness while they were still toddlers. Research shows we tend to dislike unfair situations, and that this aversion is part of the way the brain reacts to rewards.

One recent study showed that our objection to unfairness holds true even for the person who benefits from the unfair situation. In this study, one of a pair of strangers was randomly designated as rich and given $50 in cash. The other person was "poor" and got no money. Then, as their brains were scanned, each was shown an additional amount of money that one of them might receive.

Fairness and the Brain

It's not surprising that, when the poor man saw the potential of his receiving a bonus, the striatum and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, two areas of the brain that decide how much we like something, showed more activity. What was surprising was that the reward center of the rich man's brain also showed more activity at the idea of the poor man's getting a payout. More surprising was that when the rich man got even more money while the poor one stayed poor, brain activity went down, showing that he found this less rewarding.

It's possible that serotonin, a brain chemical that helps control mood, contributes to the unpleasantness we feel about injustice. Research shows that as serotonin falls, we react more strongly to inequity. In other words, our sense of fairness isn't based entirely on social rules we've learned. It's an integral part of the way our brain responds to rewards: We like to see the underdog win.

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense, says Elizabeth Tricomi, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University, who conducted the study. "When we cooperate, we all might get something better than if we only cared about ourselves."

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