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Hypocritical Fairness

by Phyllis Pollack

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

Phyllis  Pollack
 In November 2007, I wrote a blog entitled “Fairness To Me” in which I discussed a study involving Capuchin monkeys seeking fairness to themselves but not for their companions, or the “what’s in it for me”snydrome.

       Now, another study shows that we define “fairness” depending upon if we are referring to ourselves or to the other party. In the July 1, 2008 science section of the New York Times, John Tierney discusses the notion that “Deep Down, We Can’t Even Fool Ourselves.” In his article, Mr. Tierney discusses moral hypocrisy:

      “The moral hypocrite. . . has convinced himself that he is acting virtuously even when he does something he would condemn in others.”

        To explain this “self-halo” effect, Mr. Tierney points to an experiment by two psychologists, Piercarlo Valdesolo and David DeSteno in which they tested people’s reactions to a certain situation:

      “You show up for an experiment and are told that you and a person arriving later will each have to do a different task on a computer. One job involves a fairly easy hunt through photos that will take just 10 minutes. The other task is a more tedious exercise in mental geometry that takes 45 minutes.”

      “You get to decide how to divvy up the chores: either let a computer assign the task randomly, or make the assignments yourself. Either way, the other person will not know you had anything to do with the assignments.”

      “Now what is the fair way to divvy up the chores?”

       As may be expected, when this question is posed in the abstract, everyone says it would not be fair to take the easy job, giving the harder one to the other person.

       But, when the person is faced with the actual situation and must choose which task to assign herself, more than 75% take the “easy road,” - i.e. the simpler task. Then, when later questioned about it, the participant views herself as acting very fairly. Or, in the words of the researchers, the participants were “moral hypocrites,” as “they were absolving themselves of violating a widely held standard of fairness. . . .” (Id.). In sum, a double standard of moral fairness exists in the world.

       How does this relate to negotiation and mediation? In any negotiation, each party brings with her a moral sense of “fairness.” This study shows that the standard is probably a double one. Each party subconsciously says to herself, “I will determine fairness to me by a different standard than how I determine fairness to you.” Or, “my definition of what is fair to me does not necessarily apply to what is fair to you.”

       Thus, during a negotiation or mediation, each party should attempt to be cognizant of the double standard that is probably in use and work towards mitigating its effects. Such cognitive awareness will go a long way toward reaching a compromise. If anything. . . such self-awareness may lead to a little empathy – or judging “fairness” from the other party’s shoes!

       . . . Just something to think about.   


Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as well as their own needs better than any mediator or arbitrator. She does not impose her views or make decisions for the parties. Rather, Phyllis assists the parties in creating options that meet the needs and desires of both sides.  When appropriate, visual aids are used in preparing discussions and illustrating possible solutions. On the other hand, she is not averse to being proactive and offering a generous dose of reality, particularly when the process may have stalled due to unrealistic expectations of attorney or client, a failure to focus on needs rather than demands, or when one or more parties need to be reminded of the potential consequences of their failure to reach an agreement.

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