Jim the chimp learns to pull a lever and is rewarded with a banana. Happy Jim. His friend Phil is put in the cage next to him a week later and is taught the same trick, but is rewarded with a higher quality ‘prize’.. say… some peanuts. Jim goes on strike and stamps his chimp feet until he is given the better reward too*. The other day the BBC reported that women without children are upset at working mothers as these get more flexible working hours.
It’s not fair seems to be the battle cry of modern life.
As a child I was convinced that my mother cared more about my brother than about me. Little did I know that his severe childhood asthma created a deep concern for his vulnerability. What I ‘translated’ as unfair was actually her natural maternal instinct that told her that I needed less ‘hands on’ attention than him.
Like Jim the chimp we seem to feel that fairness can only be measured in the banality of tit for tat, or should that be tit for tit? Solutions that work for one group quickly annoy another because we want the same as they’re getting, regardless of why they’re getting it. Ted talk comedian Maysoon Zayid shocked her audience when she said ‘at some point in your lives you have all wanted to be disabled’. After the initial shock, and a humorous description of the lack of parking spaces on Christmas Eve, her comment gets a huge and embarrassed laugh. She calls the audience on what I call monkey reasoning.
Don’t get me wrong, I am the ultimate fair bargain maker. I do this for you, and you do that for me. I am tidy and do the washing up, and then you, my fellow housemates, will reward me by also being tidy and washing up. NOT.
It doesn’t happen because that kind of ‘fairness’ thinking is too literal and linear. It is based on monkey reasoning.
To each their own
In therapy, couples are sometimes asked to complete a questionnaire about how they think they express their love and affection for one another. Rarely are the two questionnaires completed in the same way. One partner may show love by wanting to create every opportunity for their partner to grow and develop as an individual, while the other shows love by having the fridge full of their partner’s favourite food and planning romantic getaways. If they get stuck in ‘monkey reasoning’, as many of us do, then the ‘I always do this and you never do it back’ cycle can blind us to what we really ARE being given. I am still learning! Not only that, I am also learning that I need to be clear and express what I think is ‘fair’ in our exchange of services or goods. And sometimes you DO get less of one thing, or more of another, because that is exactly what is right for the individual that you are.
If my mother had held the ideal of scrupulous equality and fairness higher than her maternal wisdom, then my brother might have struggled to hold his own, and I might have felt cramped by an overabundance of attention that would have been far more than my free spirit wanted and needed.
Taking the fairness and equality revolution a step further.
If we try and look at it from an evolutionary perspective there is no doubt that the biggest gains of the last 200 years, at least in the western world, have been due to an increased morality around fairness, despite it sometimes being more about being PC than it coming from within. Slavery was abolished and ethnicity no longer the measure of a person’s worth. Women got the right to vote, the LGBT community the right to be just as they are, and even animals have rights in our increasingly egalitarian society.
We certainly don’t want to go back to glaring inequality, but now we need to look at ways to tailor fairness to heterogeneous individual needs.
Rather than clamour for the same, we should explore what our unique need is, and clamour for that. What is bananas to one, is peanuts to another and what seemed to be less attention for me, was the care and love that was more needed by the other. Another step on from that would be to stop talking in terms of groups, the handicapped, the men, the women, the LGBT comunity, and bring it right back to the individual heterogenous needs of the individual. And lest we forget, since this seems to be a piece all about getting what you feel is fair… our much greater duty is to give back!
So next time I notice my primitive ‘it’s not fair’ reaction to seeing something or someone getting a perceived better ‘reward’ than me, I am going to try and see if they’re actually not getting exactly what they need, right now. And with a little thought, I can get, and ask for, my needs, right here, right now. We’ve managed to understand we are all equal, let’s now make the leap to accept we are unique and different too.
*Researchers conclude that fairness is therefore hardwired and not culturally learned.
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