Do Self-Views of Being Fair Affect the Division of Resources?

UCR sociologists begin two-year study to examine whether individuals’ perceptions of themselves as fair can produce more equitable behavior

Stets, Savage and Burke

Sociologists Jan Stets, Scott Savage and Peter Burke have received a National Science Foundation grant to examine how people’s perceptions of themselves as fair or not fair affect how they bargain for resources with others.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Sociologists at the University of California, Riverside have begun a two-year study that has broad implications for understanding inequality in American society.

Funded by a $272,519 grant from the National Science Foundation, sociologists Jan Stets, Scott Savage, and Peter Burke will examine how people’s perceptions of themselves as fair or not fair affect how they bargain for resources with others.

Social exchange theory suggests that when people negotiate with one another, individuals in positions of power will get a bigger share, while people with less power will get a smaller share.

“We also want to examine people’s views of themselves as fair or not fair when they are in more powerful and less powerful positions,” explained Stets, professor of sociology and principal investigator on the research project. “Some people see themselves as more fair-minded, and they are sensitive to issues of justice and equality, while others see themselves as less fair-minded, and they are more concerned about their own interests. We’re looking at how people might negotiate differently based on how they see themselves in terms of fairness.”

While economists maintain that negotiating is all about self-interest, Stets, Savage, and Burke suggest that people also have moral identities that guide their behavior, and one dimension of morality is fairness.

“If someone has a high fairness identity or self-view, we would expect them to behave in a fair and impartial manner when negotiating. Those with a low fairness identity should be more likely to exploit the other,” Stets said. “More generally, we need to examine not only the power structure during a negotiation, but also the nature of the person. It is both the structure of the group and characteristics of the person that we think influence the division of resources during a negotiation.”

The researchers will test this idea in a series of experiments in which individuals negotiate over resources. These experiments will have groups of people with different fairness identities negotiate over resources to examine how the bargaining process changes depending on the distribution of the fairness identity.

“Findings from this research will have broad implications for understanding inequality in our society,” Stets said. “The results will tell us how the fairness identity might modify how resources are negotiated, either exacerbating or suppressing the relative deprivation that can result from these negotiations. When negotiating in groups, we also might find the fairness identity is important in the development of positive ties such as trust and solidarity in the group, which is something else we will be studying.”

“More generally, the results will lend insight into how one’s identity influences outcomes in a situation by modifying the effects that emerge on the basis of one’s position of power,” she added. “We may be able to change the outcome of interactions. These findings are particularly valuable to social scientists, public policy analysts, and grass-roots organizations that examine and want to reduce inequality in society.”

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