The desire for fairness is a dominant component of human behavior — so much so that we have metaphorically enshrined it as a sense. Though we don't consider fairness in the same category as vision or hearing, our lives are constrained by its absence.

Our sense of fairness is already evident in the second year of life. It has deep roots in our evolutionary past, with origins among the earliest social animals. It is an essential aspect of social behavior at all levels of human interaction, from interpersonal to international relations. In times of growing inequality and economic stress, fairness has become a popular catchword, employed by partisans of every stripe — but what is fair is often hotly disputed.

The human sense of fairness is influenced by both biology and culture. The biology of fairness arises in our genes, and is expressed in the structures of our brains and the neurochemical bases of behavior and emotion. Cultural fairness is expressed in the structures and norms of our social institutions. Biology and culture are closely intertwined, and influence each other's evolution. If our goal is to create institutions that provide more fairness to society at large, we need to understand how these biological and cultural influences interact to generate the complex phenomenon we call the human sense of fairness.

Researchers from diverse fields are studying different aspects of the human sense of fairness. These include behavioral genetics, evolutionary and developmental psychology, neuroscience, animal behavior, experimental economics, as well as intriguing cross-disciplinary collaborations. The results of their research are published in peer-reviewed journals that reach only a narrow community. The most interesting and sensational research finds its way briefly into the popular press, but invariably in an oversimplified fashion. No venue exists where this research is being brought together in an organized way, combined with in-depth reporting that reveals the richness of this wide range of research.

Our goal is to create a series of multimedia articles and a feature film that integrates the research, in order to paint a comprehensive picture of the interplay between biology and culture that gives rise to the human sense of fairness.  We will explore the manner in which this sense shapes our individual personalities, our societies, and our relationship with the planet we depend on for life.

Programs and Activities

There are two kinds of media products and activities:

  • A series of multimedia articles about a wide range of scientific investigations into the origins and evolution of the human sense of fairness, published in Pacific Standard magazine online. These will consist of text, still photos, graphics, and short videos. This series will run for approximately two years, with a new story published each month.
  • A feature documentary film that brings the most compelling and relevant scientific information about fairness to focus on the contemporary challenges of achieving a fairer, healthier, and more sustainable society.

Links to Additional Information

Project Leader Biographies
Article in Pacific Standard: Are We Born With a Sense of Fairness?

Contact Information

Alan Honick, Multimedia Journalist, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Gordon Orians, Science Advisor, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
6619 NE Marshall Road, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110
Phone: 206.842.2625