Friday, December 30, 2011

"That's Not Fair": Sushi, Notions of Justice, and Student Grades

Since human beings first developed the ability to speak, one of the most frequently uttered phrases has to be “Not fair!” Fairness is such a basic concept, even small children (and people who just behave like small children) discuss it at length. Like many topics I discuss on this blog, notions of what is fair and unfair are largely shaped by our experiences. In fact, even the idea of “fair” is a social one. There’s really no way to divorce fairness from the social context - it is a core component in all social interactions. Even so, people have different ideas of what is (and is not) fair. I was thinking about this the other day, as my husband and I were sharing a sushi roll.

This very special roll - dubbed the 2012 roll (Happy New Year, by the way!) - contained yellow tail, asparagus, “special” seaweed paper, and various sauces, and each of the 8 pieces were topped with one of 4 kinds of fish roe: masago, red tobiko, black tobiko (my favorite), and green tobiko. I figured: 4 kinds of roe, 8 pieces - enough for us to each have 4, one with each kind of roe. So when my husband just starts picking up pieces without regard to the fact that he just grabbed a second red one, my first thought was, “Hey, not fair!”

And right after I think this - and say, “Dude, you already had a red one.” - I stop and consider, “Why is this idea of equality so important to me? It’s just sushi.”

While justice can be evaluated differently by different people, based on their perspective, research on justice shows that there is some consensus in how people evaluate justice. There are two (possibly three) overarching perspectives that people might use at different times, and that fit into the different theoretical frameworks: distributive justice, procedural justice, and (possibly) interactional justice.

Adam Smith’s social exchange theory, which inspired some of the earliest research on distributive justice, states that people evaluate fairness of an outcome by creating a ratio of outputs to inputs (basically, how much work I had to do and how much I got in return), then comparing that ratio to the ratio of another’s outputs to inputs. If the evaluator’s ratio is equal to the comparison ratio, then the outcome is fair. Smith stated, however, that this process is still subjective, and that many biases can influence the values in one’s own ratio and in the comparison other’s ratio, especially because we may have really skewed ideas of how much work another person puts in.

Find a funnier cartoon?!  I don't have time for anything but Google Image search.
 In general, distributive justice deals with what types of distributions of outcomes will be perceived to be fair. There are three different rules that can be applied when distributing outcomes among parties. Fairness of the outcome is determined by the rule applied. The first is equality, in which each party receives an equal share. The second is equity, where an individual party’s share is based on the amount of input from that party; this is sometimes referred to as the merit rule, and is based on social exchange theory. Finally, the last rule is need, where share is based on whether the party has a deficit or has been slighted in some other distribution.

The preferred rule is influenced by many things, including the goals of the distribution. Equality is often chosen when group harmony is the goal. Equity rules are preferred when the goal is to maximize contributions. Need rules are used when group welfare is a concern, or when resources are limited. The context of the distribution can also have an influence. If outcomes are distributed publicly, the equality rule is usually preferred, while outcomes distributed privately often lead to use of the equity rule. The degree to which the perceiver contributes (or believes he contributes) can also influence preference; high contributors prefer equity and low contributors prefer equality.

Distributive justice was the major justice construct until the mid-1970’s, when procedural justice was introduced. Fans of procedural justice argue that people prefer fair procedures because they believe they will lead to fair outcomes, and that as long as people believe the process of allocating resources was fair, they’ll be fine with the outcome. Any teachers out there can probably tell you this is not always the case.

"I showed up.  That should be worth at least a B, right?"
In fact, not all researchers agree that procedural justice is more important in evaluating justice. Hegtvedt (2006 - an excellent book chapter on justice frameworks, which you can read here) argues that procedural justice may only appear to be more highly valued because 1) procedures are easily interpreted and 2) individuals may lack the information necessary to compare outcomes across group members. When outcome information is available, people will focus more on that information.

Some people have identified another type of justice called interactional justice. Interactional justice is made up of two parts: Interpersonal justice is the degree of respect and dignity demonstrated in the procedure, and informational justice is the sharing of information on process and the distribution of outcomes. Bies and Shapiro (1987 - abstract here), for example, refer to the journal peer review process as an example of how lack of interactional justice can influence whether the outcome is perceived to be fair. Such processes are often lengthy and the responses from reviewers, condescending (see previous post). Some people call the process, and the outcome, unfair, while others do not. The authors argue that the difference in responses could be due to the explanations offered by editors; if editors provide a good reason for the delay and reviewers’ responses, authors may believe they have been treated fairly.  Of course, the reason that some argue there are only two justice perspectives is because they believe interactional justice is simply a subdivision of procedural justice.

Anyway, my husband and I ended up evenly dividing the sushi, though he told me later he would have happily traded two black tobiko rolls for two red. Bartering, hmm? Another post, another day.

Thoughtfully yours,

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