Hypocritical Fairness

Arvind Narayanan puzzled over this fact:

Online price discrimination is suspiciously absent in directly observable form, even though covert price discrimination is everywhere. … The differential treatment isn’t made explicit — e.g., by not basing it directly on a customer attribute — and thereby avoiding triggering the perception of unfairness or discrimination. (more)

So he read up on fairness:

I decided to dig deeper into the literature in psychology, marketing, and behavioral economics on the topic of price fairness and understand where this perception comes from. What I found surprised me.

First, the fairness heuristic is quite elaborate and complex. … A particularly impressive and highly cited 2004 paper reviews the literature and proposes an elaborate framework with four different classes of inputs to explain how people decide if pricing is fair or unfair in various situations. …

Sounds like we have a well-honed and sophisticated decision procedure, then? Quite the opposite, actually. The fairness heuristic seems to be rather fragile, even if complex. … More generally, every aspect of our mental price fairness assessment heuristic seems similarly vulnerable to hijacking by tweaking the presentation of the transaction without changing the essence of price discrimination. …

The perception of fairness, then, can be more properly called the illusion of fairness. … Given that the prime impediment to pervasive online price discrimination is a moral principle that is fickle and easily circumventable, one can expect companies to do exactly that. (more)

Of course all of our perceptions are subject to framing to some degree. But Narayanan seems to be saying that fairness perceptions are much more subject to framing than usual. And I agree. But then the key question is: why are fairness perceptions so much more fragile and subject to framing?

A homo hypocritus perspective accounts for this nicely I think. If humans evolved the habit of pretending to follow social norms while covertly coordinating to evade them and use them to social advantage, we should expect the psychology of social norms to be flexibly able to come to whatever conclusions a winning covert coalition desires.

What does 2+2 equal in fairness? The main question we privately ask is, what do we want it to equal?

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  • This is why moralistic arguments are so ineffective and why moralistic zeal is so strongly related to signaling. (And it’s why Robin needs to renounce moral realism.)

    But I think Robin overstates the opportunism of “morality” because he sees the alternatives as hard-wired precepts versus opportunistic moralizing. (This is, incidentally, the Jack London [“The Iron Heel”] version of the Marxist explanation of “bourgeois morality.” He wrote man is a rationalizing animal and will always morally justify his class’s oppressive acts.)

    But there’s another source: people’s amoral habits of life that indirectly structure how they think about morality. ( http://tinyurl.com/7t3zrrl )

    •  If moral arguments are ineffective, why have the last 100 years seen major changes in attitudes to race, war, empire, gender and sexuality?

      • andagain

         Attitudes change, but not always in a very consistant direction.

        When the Industrial Revolution was young, people used to say it was great that this would allow the wives and children of the poor to find work.

        Then they said it was terrible that all those women and children were working in factories and mines, and it ought to be banned.

        Now they say it was terrible that they banned all those women from working in mines and factories and it ought to be allowed, if not encouraged.

        I wonder what they will say tomorrow.

      • Even consistent changes in fairness attitudes may only reflect consistent changes in the outcomes that winning coalitions of hypocrites prefer. It is odd to point to consistent changes over time as showing a constant over time truth about fairness.

  • Bezimejla

    Internet is a totally different world than physical institutions, although US scientists couldn’t admit such lack of knowledge about a medium they created and seem to be pushing in certain directions. What different cultures make of letters pushed at the speed of light to their monitors could be at best approximated by random lying.