27 September 2021

“That wasn’t fair!” – a common reaction from someone who loses in a competition. But the winner rarely complains. Research at Linköping University has shown that participants in competitive situations, such as a recruitment process, more readily accept the results if they have received information that the process has been fair. They also become less selfish.

Counting money
The researchers studied egoistic behaviour. PATCHARIN SAENLAKON

Psychological research shows that people tend to attribute successes to their internal abilities, while they blame failures on external circumstances such as unfair processes. Previous experimental studies have found that egotistical and immoral behaviour increases when processes have been unfair. The study from Linköping University shows that the same tendencies can emerge in competitive processes where none of the participants have had any advantage or disadvantage.

“When we fail, we overestimate how unfair the situation has been. This increases the risk that we become more egotistical and immoral. For instance, it can result in employees starting to trash talk their colleagues in a recruitment process”, says Kajsa Hansson, doctoral student in economics at Linköping University’s Department of Management and Engineering (IEI) and JEDI Lab. Photo credit Thor Balkhed

The researchers at Linköping University wanted to investigate whether a selfish behaviour can be affected by providing information about the procedural fairness in a competitive situation. The results have been published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.

For the study, the researchers recruited 444 participants, who were assigned to compete against each other by solving mathematical tasks of different levels of difficulty. After the competition, each participant was informed if they had won or lost against their counterpart. To examine selfish and altruistic behavior, participants were then given the opportunity to redistribute these tokens between them and their opponent. More specifically, the losers of each competition were given the opportunity to take an amount from the winner prize, while winners were asked to decide how much they much money they wanted to give away to the losers. They also investigated whether information about the procedural fairness in the competition affected how winners and losers distributed money between each other.

The results showed that the losers took less money from the winner if they received information that the competition was fair. Thus, the information made them less selfish. Losers who were not given any information about the fairness in the competition overestimated how unfair the competition had been. However, the winners’ behaviour was not affected at all by them receiving information that the competition had been fair.

“We see that uncertainty about the fairness in a competitive situation makes people more selfish. But information and transparency can reduce this type of behaviour. The take-home message from this study is that if we want to create a more ethical and fair society implementing fair processes is important – but informing people about this procedural fairness can be just as important”, says Kajsa Hansson.

In addition to Kajsa Hansson, two researchers from Linköping University, Emil Persson and Gustav Tinghög, as well as Shai Davidai from Columbia Business School, contributed to the study.

Losing sense of Fairness: How information about a level playing field reduces selfish behavior. Kajsa Hansson, Emil Persson, Shai Davidai, Gustav Tinghög (2021). Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization. Published online 9 August 2021.

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