“In this study, we’re starting to get an idea of where this inequality aversion comes from,” he says. “It’s not just the application of a social rule or convention; there’s really something about the basic processing of rewards in the brain that reflects these considerations.”
As someone who believes we culturally misunderstand competition and cooperation, that both concepts need to be re-addressed and re-analysed, and who agrees strongly with the main thrust of “The Spirit Level,” a work packed with statistics proving what recent brain research seems to be confirming, I am nothing but encouraged to see such research yielding these types of results.
But, is it not possible that the brain lighting up in the way described in the experiments, is a consequence of social convention’s influence on biological wiring? Isn’t the brain’s wiring organized mainly by the process of socialization we all go through? A perhaps suitable analogy for what the brain is not is a cup unchanged by the information poured into it. I do not believe in Locke’s tabula rasa, far from it, but do believe that our wiring, that is, the way our biology takes shape as we grow from baby to adult, is shaped by our environment to a powerful degree. An oft used analogy I like is the baby in the box, kept alive magically in the dark for say ten years, unexposed to light and sound. With zero environmental influence, a human cannot become what its biology would become with the right environment stimulants working upon it.
Of course we must consider the chicken and egg aspect of this too. How would humans come up with the idea that fairness is morally good unless something in their nature nudged them towards this? This sensitivity to equality could well be an organic outgrowth of the human social animal. But even here, unless the brain of every human on the planet reacts to income inequality the same way (and here I’m assuming brains shaped by the Lloyd Blankfein mould would not), environmental variables such as a culture of greed for monetary wealth could perhaps “switch off” this sensibility. It would be interesting to know how widespread and uniform such reactions are.
So, knowing where wiring ends and environment begins – to fixate for the purposes of this short discussion on what is ultimately an unsatisfying boundary line – is not easy, and will occupy human effort for some time to come. I find that very exciting.
Camerer, too, found the results thought provoking. “We economists have a widespread view that most people are basically self-interested, and won’t try to help other people,” he says. “But if that were true, you wouldn’t see these sort of reactions to other people getting money.”