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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

Pre-Registered Research Grant Report by Karolina Urbanska et al.

22.02.2019, by Tina Keil in grant report

Karolina Urbanska (Université Clermont Auvergne), Shelley McKeown-Jones (University of Bristol), and Laura Taylor (Queen’s University Belfast)

Karolina Urbanska (Université Clermont Auvergne) in total, 3 pictures
Karolina Urbanska (Université Clermont Auvergne)

From injustice to action: The role of empathy and perceived fairness to address inequality via victim compensation

There is a wide scientific consensus that empathy, awareness of others’ states, thoughts, and feelings, increases prosocial behaviours (Eisenberg & Mussen, 1989). Putting oneself in the shoes of another person allows individuals to imagine what it is like being a victim of unequal treatment, increasing the likelihood of helping victims of inequality (Leliveld, Van Dijk, & Van Beest, 2012). However, for unequal treatment to be seen as such, one needs to recognise that it is also unfair. Simply observing someone receive less resources does not automatically prompt evaluation that such distribution is unfair. However, fairness is a dynamic concept, influenced by individuals’ experiences and emotional capacity rather than a set of rules on what commonly is agreed as fair (e.g., Messick, 1995). Thus, especially when the treatment is unequal, people may disagree on how fair it is.

We investigated the role of empathy on perceived fairness and compensation behaviour using dictator-style games. In such experiments, participants observe a ‘dictator’ share resources either equally or unequally with a ‘victim’ in the first round and in the second round, a participant has an option to share some of their resources with the ‘victim’. The initial evidence for our hypotheses came from a non-registered larger project carried out in Northern Irish schools. By manipulating dictator offer from very unequal (where dictator keeps all the tokens to themselves) to equal (where they share equally) and measuring empathy, we showed that those with higher empathy levels were more likely to perceive injustice than those with lower empathy levels when dictator’s distributions were less equal. Perceiving more injustice, in turn, was related to higher compensation rate to the victim.

Following these preliminary results, we put together a registered report, extending this work by further manipulating empathy. Moreover, we hypothesised that empathising with the victim of unequal treatment increases perceptions of fairness because it increases anger. Anger has been linked to motivations to restore equality (Gromet & Darley, 2009; Lotz, Okimoto, Schlösser, & Fetchenhauer, 2011), but not to perceptions of fairness in such contexts. It was expected that by empathising with the victim, people would more readily experience anger on the victim’s behalf in the case of unequal distributions, while this could explain variations in perceived fairness. The findings supported this hypothesis and provided support for the role of increased anger, but not other emotions such as increased sadness or guilt. The study was conducted using Prolific Academic participants who could receive a £1 bonus if they decide not to compensate the victim or to share a part of or all their bonus with the victim (allegedly another Prolific participant), increasing the validity of this game. Surprisingly, in this registered study, perceptions of fairness did not predict compensation rate in the dictator game in contrast to previous research (Fehr & Gächter, 2002; Leliveld et al., 2012; Weng, Fox, Hessenthaler, Stodola, & Davidson, 2015; Will, Crone, Bos, & Güroǧlu, 2013)

The registered report has received in-principle acceptance by Journal of Experimental Social Psychology on 3 September 2018 and is now been published under the following citation Urbanska, K., McKeown, S., & Taylor, L.K. (2019) From injustice to action: The role of empathy and perceived fairness to address inequality via victim compensation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 82, 129-140. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2019.01.010 (see also a pre-print: The EASP Preregistered Research Grant covered the cost of participant compensation. We thank EASP for this generous funding and supporting the open science practices.


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