Scientists at Cornell University and the European University Institute have confirmed what fans of National Football Leagues team have known for a long time:
When your team wins, the worst officiating doesn’t look so bad.
“…Winners were generally more likely to believe that the game was fair, even when the playing field was most heavily tilted in their favor,” they reported at Science Advances last week. “In short, it’s not just how the game is played, it’s also whether you win or lose.”
The scientists weren’t, however, looking at sport. They were trying to determine how people view economic inequality.
Plenty of studies have been done over the years on human perceptions of “fairness” as it pertains to economic and social success, as Cornell’s Mario Molina and colleagues noted, but most were based on observational studies of people with their associated issues: “biased perceptions of personal experience and ideologically motivated partisan narratives.”
To eliminate those influences, the researchers set up a simple card game – “the Swap Game,” they called it – that eliminated skill and decided winners and losers purely by luck and the researcher’s manipulation of opportunity.
“Removing dependence on skill is necessary to rule out the possibility that a participant’s attribution to skill has a basis in fact,” they wrote, because almost all winners have a tendency to believe victory was mainly a factor of their skill and not luck.
“The experiment tests whether participants will attribute unequal outcomes to differences in skill even in a contest in which skill plays little or no role,” the researchers wrote. “Instead of skill, the game is heavily dependent on the effects of luck and the rules of exchange.”
Any serious NFL fan would find the results of the Swap Game pretty predictable:
“Winners were more likely than losers to attribute unequal outcomes to talent instead of luck, to see the outcomes as fair, and to express personal satisfaction.”
When the researchers titled the card game far enough, however, even the winners began to recognize that they weren’t winning fair and square.
“This result is consistent with other studies showing that higher inequality triggers concerns about equal opportunities,” the authors wrote, “and suggests that perceptions of fairness are not entirely motivated by self-interest or by a need to rationalize or justify success and failure. Winners appear to be especially sensitive to regressive redistribution in their perceptions of fairness, reminiscent of repeated calls by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates for higher taxes on the wealthy to level the playing field.”
Still, the authors warned against public policy changes based on the results of their study.
“First, the redistribution of opportunity through the exchange of high or low cards likely violates implicit norms that games should be played on a level playing field,” they wrote. “Further research is needed to test whether these norms extend to real-world economic competition outside the context of a parlor game.”
Beyond that, they wrote, the study asked “about ‘your results’ rather than ‘the’ results of the game, thereby focusing attention on personal loss or gain, without taking into account the fate of the partner.
“These differences notwithstanding, the findings have two potentially important – and contradictory – implications for public support for policies to equalize opportunity, such as affirmative action, investments in early childhood education, and job training. In real-life situations, unequal opportunities often operate in inconspicuous ways.”
One was that those tested generally believed in the idea of equal opportunities. The other was that they were willing to tolerate certain inequalities if they were winning.
When the game was tilted in a way that became blatantly obvious, the researchers concluded, “both winners and losers became increasingly likely to see unequal outcomes as unfair and unjustified by differences in talent, whether the rules were regressive or progressive. In the regressive condition, the responses of winners indicate opposition to excessively unequal opportunity, although they are the ones who benefit (the Warren Buffet effect). In the progressive condition, the responses of losers indicate opposition to excessively redistributive interventions, although they are the ones with the most to gain.”
The results would indicate there was some innate sense of “fairness” as a personal value in those tested in the study.
“The typical participant was about 35 years old and has a political orientation slightly to the left. The distribution of participants in terms of gender and income is fairly balanced. But this is not observed with race, religion, and education. Most of our participants were white, did not identify with any religion, and were highly educated,” a supplement to the study noted.
At least within this demographic group, the authors concluded, “responses to unequal opportunity depend on how far the playing field is tilted more than on who benefits from the tilt.
But in most cases, “winners were more likely than losers to see outcomes as attributable to talent, although talent played no role in the game, and across all conditions…winners were more likely than losers to regard unequal outcomes as fair. Winners were also more likely to express personal satisfaction with the outcomes, even when they perceived the game as unfair and unrelated to talent.
“In short, beliefs about inequality and fairness seem to reflect ‘how the game is played’ when the rules go too far, but otherwise, what matters most is ‘whether you win or lose.'”