Most people, I think, are familiar with the two-person “ultimatum game.” Briefly, one party is responsible for allocating a fixed sum (e.g., $10) between herself and another party, who may accept the proposed allocation (in which case it stands) or may reject it (in which neither party receives anything). A purely utilitarian calculus would suggest that the offeror offer a penny and keep the remainder, as under those circumstances both parties are objectively better off. Responding indignantly to perceived inequity, however, most receivers reject any offer less than 20% of the fixed sum, even though they themselves are consequently worse off. E.g., Alan G. Sanfrey, et al., The Neural Basis of Economic Decision-Making in the Ultimatum Game, 300 Sci. 1755 (2003) (noting that neurological areas associated with “disgust” are activated in offerees who reject low offers). As a result, offerors tend instead to offer approximately 40-50% of the “pot.”
Many, including myself, have talked about such findings in terms of (a) implications for fairness, “bounded self-interest,” altruism, etc.; and/or (b) links between emotions and moral reasoning/behavior. So I was very interested in recent findings suggesting that such rejection may indeed reflect an offeree’s negative emotional response, but that an alternative opportunity to express that negative emotion leads to “ordinary” rational, self-interested responses. That is, when an offeree is given another way to express her sense of unfairness—e.g., by writing a note to the offeror—that simple act of expression seems to dissipate the emotion and yield a more utilitarian calculus. (Incidentally, there were a couple interesting conference presentations associating more "automatic"--that is, more default--moral judgments with more utilitarian judgments, and more "conscious"--that is, longer, more consciously reasoned, more emotional--moral judgments with more deontological judgments. Very interesting.)
I think those findings have some interesting broader implications: (1) setting some boundary conditions on the ultimatum game itself; (2) setting similar conditions on the inferences to be drawn from previous ultimatum game findings; (3) “procedural justice” implications, in terms of potential dangers of giving people a “voice” in expressing their feelings about legal proceedings.
The findings were presented at the ISRE conference I mention in some previous blogs. Erte Xiao (George Mason), Emotion Expression in Human Punishment Behavior. A version may have been published in 2005, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.