Equity theory and fair inequality: A neuroeconomic study

Alexander Wright Cappelen, Tom Eichele, Kenneth Hugdahl, Karsten Specht, Erik Øiolf Sørensen and Bertil Tungodden.


Picture: PNAS

Published in:

Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America 2014  111(43) pp. 15368-15372



The present paper reports results from, to our knowledge, the first study designed to examine the neuronal responses to income inequality in situations in which individuals have made different contributions in terms of work effort. We conducted an experiment that included a prescanning phase in which the participants earned money by working, and a neuronal scanning phase in which we examined how the brain responded when the participants evaluated different distributions of their earnings. We provide causal evidence for the relative contribution of work effort being crucial for understanding the hemodynamic response in the brain to inequality. We found a significant hemodynamic response in the striatum to deviations from the distribution of income that was proportional to work effort, but found no effect of deviations from the equal distribution of income. We also observed a striking correlation between the hemodynamic response in the striatum and the self-reported evaluation of the income distributions. Our results provide, to our knowledge, the first set of neuronal evidence for equity theory and suggest that people distinguish between fair and unfair inequalities.

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Published May 6, 2015 8:40 AM - Last modified May 6, 2015 8:40 AM