Are We More Likely to Be Altruistic When We Think Someone Is Being Treated Unfairly?

Yes—for the most part.

Yes: Given a strong propensity for fair outcomes, I think most individuals would be motivated to act altruistically toward someone who has been treated unfairly. Research suggests that most adults are motivated to “right the wrong”—that is, to correct injustices when given the opportunity. An intriguing question concerns whether this is true of young children as well. Our recent study suggests that 15-month-old infants notice unfair outcomes; now the question is whether young children and infants will seek to correct such outcomes.

For the most part: There may be some circumstances that qualify whether a given individual will act altruistically if someone has been treated unfairly. For example, if the individual treated unfairly has historically been unfair in their treatment of others, people may see the outcome as “just deserts.” Alternately, if acting altruistically requires the giver to relinquish something that is highly valued (vs. less highly valued), they may be less likely to behave altruistically even if the potential recipient has been treated unfairly.

Jessica Sommerville is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

Category: Q&A


One Response

  1. Dean W says:

    I think this is one of the reasons why the Jesus narrative is so compelling. It seems to me now that deities and other religious entities are feedback devices which affect us emotionally and increase our dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin secretion, thus making us feel happy. Fundamentalism results when people are caught in this positive feedback loop and everything associated with their religious figure becomes holy. I think the positive feedback loops are good but we ought to use them more consciously.

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