Unfairness: What to Do?

Unfairness creates negative emotions and is a common cause of unhappiness and conflict. Think about how you feel when someone queue jumps or takes a double helping of your favourite food and leaves none for you or someone gets the job you feel you deserve.


Reactions to Unfairness “Hard-wired” in the Brain

Researcher Renee Baillargeon found that  even children under 2 years old expect intervention in unfairness:

Babies evaluate others constantly, with reference to: Are you acting fairly? Are you acting in accordance with your responsibilities as a leader?
Renee Baillargeon, UIUC psychologist

And this deep down response occurs in animals as well as humans–this brief video shows the response of capuchin monkeys to unfairness.

In my volunteer work in the hospice and restorative justice, and in my mediation practice I come across situations of much more significant unfairness and a lot of anger. In the words of an renowned expert on loss and grief

It is important to feel the anger without judging it, without attempting to find meaning in it. It may take many forms: anger at the health-care system, at life, at your loved one for leaving. Life is unfair. Death is unfair. Anger is a natural reaction to the unfairness of loss.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Alexander Cappelen and Bertil Tungodden present their research on the effects of fairness on our brains. Using fMRI technology, the neuroeconomics study shows that the brain reacts to unfairness. Income inequalities are perceived as fair if they reflect different work contributions.

So, negative reactions to unfairness are hardwired in us all. Some people are more sensitive to unfairness than others, and some are sensitive only if it affects them. Evolution gave us this response because being fair is usually the best way to survive–even in the corporate world. In his TED talk, Marco Alvera gives examples of how fairness makes business work better and how unfairness derails careers, companies and countries.

Typical Responses

All that is unfair offends us if it's not beneficial for us. Unfairness

Although unfairness triggers negative emotions in all of us, people may react in very different ways. Some rage, some accept, some run away, some take revenge and some accept. The same person may react differently in different situations or depending on their mood. And, of course, if we benefit from the unfairness, the positive emotions may overwhelm the negative niggle that perhaps it is a bit unfair. There is no one right way to respond to unfairness. When should we speak up? When should we stay silent?

What we need is

 the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can, and
the wisdom to know the difference.
 Reinhold Niebuhr

This wisdom only comes through self-knowledge, trial and error. However, there are some guidelines that can help us to get it right more often than we get it wrong.

Helpful Hints

“It’s not fair on me”

  • Accept that it is normal to feel angry, hurt, upset. Name your feelings and work out why you feel the way you do.
  • Do a reality check. Do you have all the facts? Have you ignored what you might have done? If it was someone else what would you think?
  • How important is it? How easy is it for you to move on?
  • What could you do about it apart from rage or weep? What would be the consequences of that action?
  • Make a decision and do it.  This exercise might help you move from Sad to GLAD 
  • Don’t keep harping on about how unfair things are–it just make you more resentful, others more defensive and you get stuck. Letting Go of Resentment: How & Why

When I see unfairness towards others

It’s very hard when you see unfairness towards others, especially if they are loved ones. When parents see unfairness towards their child, they may rush in where angels fear to tread, even if children are grown up. This is where one needs that courage, serenity and wisdom even more because we know little of what others are thinking.

  • Name the way you feel and try and work out why. Sometimes we are angry because of our own triggers, and the other person might see it differently.
  • Do a reality check–is there any other way that this could be seen? How does the “victim” feel?
  • What would happen if you did nothing? What’s the worst that could happen if you did something? Is your intervention more likely to help or hurt?
  • Act tentatively, ask–you may have misinterpreted the situation.
  • Don’t keep harping on–it doesn’t help the other person–listen, but don’t catastrophise.

Finally, this quote sums it all up.

I can’t control what’s fair and unfair.
I can’t control the nature of the business or the nature of society
or the nature of the world, but what I can control is
how I choose to see the world and what I choose to put back into it.
Aisha Tyler 

Tend towards exploding? Taming the Tiger Within will help

Tend toward retreating into your shell? Toolkit for Tortoises is for you.

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