life is beautiful - fairplay a cornerstone of humanity?

Date: Wed Feb 28 2001 - 04:17:17 PST

ahh, life is beautiful - serendipity and discovery and that lovely feeling
of elation as ideas rattle, buzz and develop... and no drugs involved ;-)

i've been away from this list for a while mainly because i've been so busy
but also i have to admit because of the bruising i felt after being bullied
here by a couple of stalwarts, who may be no more nasty at heart than i am.
i now feel that their behavior was probably born out of a powerful motivator
in all of us - fairplay - which i've overlooked in it's impact on behavior.
thinking about it's impact seems to be a very useful tool in understanding a
host of situations, from my divorce to buying a toaster.

i've been interested in the motivations and barriers people see in life and
how this affects behaviour since jogging along the .com aspiration of
discovering another "hotmail" a year or so ago. that amazing phenomenom
called viral marketing [1] was the seed, nurtured along the way by
  - loads of self analysis, thought experiments, discussion of ideas and
plans over a long period
  - falling into FoRK recently for ten minutes to discover a gem of a book
by Thaler [2] about behavioral tweaks to game theory and the implications
for economics. (I've only read the first chapter and a half so far having
bought it in response to John Regehr's FoRK post "Re: Exuberance Is
Rational" February 14th, 2001)
  - an article in this week's New Scientist [3] magazine echoing Thaler, but
about why we queue - or rather why we so readily form co-operative alliances
with completely unrelated individuals
  - thinking about the things that have been going on in minds during the to
and fro of my divorce emails and other things
  - and suddenly realising that fairplay has some powerful and interesting
effects on our behaviour

a sense of fairness is an axiom underlying what we call humanity - at least
as much as the possibly overplayed sexual or selfish/greed motivations
(probably because sex is so interesting to us) and economics (where
selfishness is seen as so important - a cleaner more obvious theory -
consistent with evolution etc.).

fairplay underlies a lot of things from altruism to anger

- altruism: we're happy to queue (at least in uk!) behind people we don't
know and will never meet again because we recongnise the fairness of the
"first come first served" concept
- anger arises when someone jumps the queue, or in any situation where we
feel someone is getting more than they deserve

it is an insteresting and essential game of give and take that gives rise to
co-operation, to the advancement of co-operators over those who would tend
not to co-operate. the latter, "defectors", become isolated and
disadvantaged because they are easily identified and excluded by those who
co-operate. since by definition defectors don't form a group, they can't
exclude the co-operators (who in fact they attempt to parasite on) and so
end up disadvantaged in battle for existance and reproduction. so evolution
has selected positively for co-operative behavior, at least in humans. we
find co-operation elsewhere in nature, but apparently humans are the only
example where this seems widespread among unrelated individuals [3].

Thaler's book repeatedly illustrates how our perception of fairness affects
how we behave, and I now see this in operation all over the place. It's
helping me understand my own reactions to things and also how to construct
ideas (from business models to life plans) around people's behaviour, in
combination with the other principles that I've been discerning (e.g.
factors in viral marketing, evolution, emotion etc.)

Our perception of what is fair is powerful as demonstrated by some extremely
common, but perverse and even unfair, behavior:
  - going across town to save $10 on a $30 toaster but not on a $400 TV
  - underdeclaring our Tax because "we pay too much" and don't see it as
stealing from fellow taxpayers (Life)
  - overdeclaring an insurance claims for the same reasons (Life)

If you think about the simplest of interactions you have with people you'll
find that your perception of fairness, or unfairness, is worryingly
influential. worrying because it is so subjective. you'll also find
contradictions and interestingly, altruistic philosophies that work to
counter the negative potential of perceived unfairness (c.f. turn the other

Beware the effects of either being seen to be unfair or perceiving someone
or something as unfair. And think about it! It's fascinating insight into
yourself and others, and how to get the best out of life, a business etc.


Mark Hughes
  Agile HTML Editor

[1] Viral Marketing. By Steve Jurvetson and Tim Draper. (Please stop changing the URL guys - every time I reference this it has moved!!!)

[2] The Winner's Curse, by Richard H. Thaler. Princeton Univ Pr; ISBN: 0691019347 =aps_sr_b_1_1/103-4692796-8771830

[3] Why we choose to cooperate p7, NewScientist, 24 February 01. (The article is not available online).

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