We’re living in unfair times – one of the most unfair in recent history.
And now my husband Bryan Hubbard may have come up with a reasonable answer as to why.
It may have something to do, believe it or not, with aspirin and paracetamol or acetaminophen, those everyday painkillers we buy and consume by the shovelfuls to blunt the pain of everyday living.
The problem is, as Bryan discovered, these painkillers also blunt our emotions.
Same brain pathways
Psychologist Naomi Eisenberger and her colleagues from UCLA have been studying the sources in the brain of physical pain, and they’ve discovered that the very same part of the brain that registers physical pain (the anterior cingulate cortex) also registers social pain, such as rejection, exclusion – or even a sense of unfairness.
And now we have discovered that treating the one also affects the other.
Recent studies show that a single dose of acetaminophen blunts physical pain, but also numbs us to social pain like hurt feelings or the outrage we generally feel when things are unfair, or even our positive feelings toward a social group.
In other words, painkillers make us a little less human, a lot less concerned about other people and whether they are kind or cruel to us, or indeed whether we return a good deed.
A lot less concerned about unfairness.
Every man, woman and child
Just think of the implications of this, considering the amount of painkilling we currently do. In America alone, doctors hand out some 259 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers – almost one for every man, woman and child in the country. In one year alone, Americans spent about $4 billion on over-the-counter pain killers.
In Britain, people take an average of 373 painkillers every year, according to the British Medical Association study; one in every 20 adults take at least six painkillers every time they’re feeling under the weather. And that was 13 years ago.
All those people getting blunted to sensitivity to others. All those people not giving a damn anymore about whether things are unfair.
An innate sense of fairness
Here’s the big issue. The soul of any successful society is turn-taking, or reciprocity – a sense of fair play. The moment individuals begin to cluster in a group larger than the nuclear family, they appear to evolve a strong, in-built sense of fairness.
Our survival depends upon our ability to give each one of us a turn, and the extent to which any society begins to fray relates to a deterioration of a sense of fairness and basic reciprocity.
This has been demonstrated in the extensive work on fairness by Swiss economist Ernst Fehr (yes, that’s actually his name) from the University of Zurich, now based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Fehr has exhaustively tested his theory that people are inherently fair with the classic game theory study called the Ultimatum Game. In this game, volunteers are randomly paired, although never allowed to meet.
The pairs are then split off into “proposers” and “responders.” The proposer is given a sum of money — say, $10 — and allowed to offer the responder any amount of money, from $1 to $10, that he sees fit, while the responder’s job is simply to accept or reject the offer.
If he accepts it, he will receive the designated sum, while the proposer keeps the rest. If the responder rejects the offer, however, both leave empty-handed.
This is a one-time-only offer, however, and both parties know this – hence the name “ultimatum”; there is no possibility of holding out for a better deal. Furthermore, as the game is only played once, the two understand that there will never be any reprisal.
If human beings were innately selfish, it would make perfect sense for the proposer always to keep the lion’s share and make the most derisory offer, and for the responder always to accept it, as something, no matter how little, that is better than nothing. There is no social pressure to be generous in the game as identities are kept secret and the two will never interact again.
In practice, this scenario rarely occurs with any pair in any society, even indigenous ones that don’t have currency, but play for tobacco. In every instance, the outcome is extraordinarily uniform around the world.
The most common offer is 50 per cent, and the overall average ranges between 43-48 per cent. Even though it means they stand to lose out personally, most people would rather share equally with people they haven’t met and never will meet again.
Even more interesting, people tend to punish those who exceed the boundaries of fairness. Those playing Ultimatum Game generally refuse any offer below 20 per cent, so if they’re playing with $10, they reject any offers of $2 or below. Social scientists call this impulse “altruistic punishment” – our desire to punish unfairness, even if it comes at a cost to ourselves.
So strong is this impulse in human beings that we are willing to cut off our own nose, so to speak, by refusing our own reward in order to punish transgressors who have taken more than they are entitled to.
We would rather go home empty-handed than allow someone to get away with more than their fair share.
The unfair banking crisis
In the wake of the worldwide financial crisis of 2008, the fury that most ordinary citizens felt toward bankers and traders had nothing to do with income envy but a deep and compelling sense of unfairness that investment houses like Goldman Sachs still paid record bonuses after the recession they had helped to create caused so many others to lose their jobs.
In Britain, Sir Fred “the Shred” Goodwin, former chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, unapologetically paid himself a £700,000 pension (about $1.05 million) despite the bank’s sustaining, under his stewardship, the largest corporate loss in history, requiring a £24 billion government bailout.
Shortly thereafter, aggrieved citizens attacked his Edinburgh villa and smashed his Mercedes S600. A statement sent to the Edinburgh Evening News read: “We are angry that rich people, like him are paying themselves a huge amount of money, and living in luxury, while ordinary people are made unemployed, destitute, and homeless.”
Our sense of unfairness emerges when the most fundamental needs we have —to take our turn — are thwarted, when the promises we make to each other to take our fair share are broken.
And now we may have the missing piece to all this. The vast disparity between rich and poor in America and Western countries may not be solely down to the banking system or globalization.
Maybe it also has something to do with that giant dope-dealer, the pharmaceutical industry, which has made numb junkies of us all.