An Illusion of Unfairness about Random Outcomes

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Furrer, Rémy, Psychology, University of Virginia
Wilson, Timothy, University of Virginia

Valuing a sense of control over their lives, people struggle with the notion that their fate is often determined by random events. Despite such aversion to randomness, human beings often resort to using random processes for the purpose of distributing benefits and burdens amongst themselves in a fair manner. I hypothesized that people are so attuned to maintaining control that they sometimes see unfairness in outcomes where there is objectively none. To test this hypothesis, I designed a paradigm to induce an illusory sense of control within an objectively random procedure. In a series of 10 studies, I had participants believe they were competing with another participant for a good or bad outcome, and, as the result of a coin flip, they received the bad outcome. The independent variable was who called heads or tails and flipped the coin: The participant or their opponent. Logically, who flipped the coin should not influence participants’ judgments of fairness or their affective reactions, because the outcome was random in both cases. As predicted, however, I found an illusion of unfairness, whereby participants reported that the process was less fair, that the other person was more responsible, and that they were less deserving of the negative outcome, when the other participant flipped the coin. Furthermore, the illusion of unfairness had affective consequences: When the other person flipped the coin, participants were less pleased with their outcome, experienced reduced positive emotions, and found the other person less likable. Ratings of fairness mediated the effects of who flipped on several of the affective measures. I conducted two novel experiments: The first, aimed to further elucidate the mechanism behind the illusion of unfairness, while the second aimed to mitigate it. I first present evidence that the illusion of unfairness emerges from a quick, intuitive process but that, through deliberation, can be attenuated to a certain extent (Study 1). Finally, I demonstrate that deliberation - in the form of counterfactual reasoning - can further mitigate the illusion of unfairness (Study 2). I discuss the implications of these findings for research on procedural justice and moral luck.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Fairness, Responsibility, Control, Randomness, Moral Luck, Distributive Justice
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