That’s So Unfair!

A “Break This Down” Q & A with Professor Larry Heuer on the meaning of fairness

By N. Jamiyla Chisholm

The concept of fairness has occupied many of us from as far back as we can remember—from when we were required as a child to share a favorite toy or received a grade in school we thought was lower than what we deserved. In daily life, many people have had the experience of feeling wronged. Conversely, many also recognize when they are treated fairly.

Larry Heuer, the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Psychology and an affiliate of Barnard’s Human Rights Program, explores and teaches the psychology of procedural fairness—of being treated by authority figures as one feels one deserves. Since joining Barnard’s faculty in 1990, Heuer has focused on two questions: What leads people to think they’ve been treated equitably? And, why does that matter? In doing so, he unpacks a seemingly simple human desire, which has a huge social impact.

Tell us about your newest study on how civilians who have encounters with police officers experience fairness.

Let’s start with what has been, most recently, the prevailing theory about why and when people feel they’ve been treated fairly, as put forward by Tom R. Tyler, a professor of law and psychology at Yale Law School. Tyler has conducted hundreds of studies on this subject, many of which support his theory that people judge their treatment by others as fair when they are treated with respect, in a neutral manner, by others who care about their welfare. Academics call this “group-value” theory.

However, my students and I have been testing a competing theory called “deservingness.” It predicts that people’s sense of being treated fairly stems from their belief that they have been treated the way they deserve to be treated. This is quite a different theory from the group-value theory, which asserts that being valued and treated positively by others are the keys to experiencing treatment as fair. Our theory of deservingness, by contrast, predicts that under the right circumstances, individuals can also view negative treatment as fair.

My students and I surveyed about 200 individuals about an encounter with a police officer that resulted in a summons to appear in a misdemeanor court. Our survey asked these individuals about their judgments regarding the positive or negative value of the behavior that led to their summons—for example, public urination—and the extent to which they reported that they had been treated respectfully by a judge. Our study showed that individuals who acknowledged they had behaved negatively also acknowledged that it was fair for the judge to treat them negatively [such as fining them a small amount]. They acknowledged as well that if they had behaved positively, it would be fair for the judge to treat them positively. My students and I argue that the prediction that negative treatment can be viewed as fair is one that the group-value theory is hard-pressed to explain. But a theory of deservingness readily accounts for it.

Looking at the media, would your research say the president is treated as unfairly as he claims? And on the flip side, is it difficult for the media to report facts fairly?

I’m curious about the criteria people use to judge the media: Is their concern that the media do not respect or value them or a group that they are a part of? Or that the media are “biased”? Using the group-value framework, if we think the media are biased, we would judge the media negatively. As for whether the media are treating the president fairly, my students and I would predict that readers judge fairness according to our “deservingness” model: If consumers of media think the president is behaving negatively, they would judge negative reviews of his behavior as fair.

So, our view of the media may depend largely on our own personal view of what’s considered fair?

As consumers of media, we orient to news outlets that share our notions of what’s fair. There are editors out there who are either enamored of, or disgusted by, our president, and I expect that our views rest in part on whether his actions toward people reflect the treatment we think we deserve. Or, as the group-value model argues, are contingent upon whether we think the president cares about us. I’m sure people who support him—because they believe he cares about them—probably think quite differently about news stories that challenge him than I do.

Have our definitions of fairness changed over the years?

This is a really great question. A really great answer would require that I am a better historian, anthropologist, sociologist, and philosopher than I am. What I am best qualified to say is simply that since the discipline of social psychology began its experimental study of fairness—which got its start at about the beginning of World War II—our notions of what leads us to believe we have been treated fairly have shifted periodically and dramatically.

And deservingness theory?

I am reasonably confident that our work on deservingness versus group-value is on a good track. My students and I have been doing our reading and refining our experimental procedures to produce a test of whether group-value or deservingness is a better predictor of procedural fairness. I am pleased to say that we have some good evidence to draw on.

I think people orient strongly to the idea that it’s right and appropriate to treat people negatively when they behave negatively—a view that is at considerable tension with the group-value theory. I expect that my students and I will be working on and testing our theory throughout this academic year, and I hope our work produces a paper that poses a challenge to the group-value theory. •

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