Washington: Confronted with distributing food rations to hungry orphans, people would rather be fair than efficient, even if it means letting some of the food go waste, according to a U.S. study that was released yesterday.
Test subjects said they abhorred the choices given to them by researchers at the University of Illinois and the California Institute of Technology. “Quite a few came out saying: ‘This is the worst experiment I’ve ever been in. I never want to do anything like this again!´” said Ming Hsu, one of the study leaders.
But the tests demonstrated that most people preferred equity in distributing food that all hungry mouths got fed equally, rather than an efficiency that perhaps meant that one orphan got almost nothing but also that no food went to waste.
Hsu said in a summary of the study that the research aimed at examining the neurological side of moral decision-making, and also what role was played by emotion.
Researchers scanned the brains of people tasked with making different choices with functional magnetic resonance imaging equipment. Choices were of “distributive justice”, testing whether subjects leaned toward fairness or efficiency.
A computer program was devised showing pictures of hungry orphans and had test subjects allocate meals that were represented by a moving ball on the screen.
The subjects were also informed on the screen that making certain choices like allocating the ball to certain children would mean less overall meals available to the group. Other choices would maximize the number of balls -- food -- distributed, but some children would get much less.
The test showed that subjects “overwhelmingly” elected to be even-handed to all the orphans even when it was less efficient, distribution-wise. “They were all quite inequity averse,” Hsu said.
The magnetic resonance imaging showed the role different brain regions like the insula, caudate and putamen, played at different times in the decision-making process.
Activity in the putamen, often activated by reward-related learning, appeared tied to changes in efficiency in the tests. Insula activity corresponded to variations in equity issues, but also supported the idea that emotion was involved in a subject’s feelings on inequity, according to Hsu.
The caudate appeared to involve both equity and efficiency, only once a decision was made. The study gave some idea of “what makes us moral, and how do we make tradeoffs in difficult situations,” said Hsu.