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When People Prefer Injustice for All

October 6, 2012

By Jan-Willem van Prooijen, VU University Amsterdam

Photo Credit: The Profit

Most of us care a great deal about how we are treated by decision-makers. Whether it is a boss deciding on a possible promotion, a teacher deciding whether a student passes or fails an exam, or a judge deciding on a suspect’s guilt or innocence—people want decision-makers to use fair and just procedures when making important decisions. We expect, in particular, that decision-makers will make an effort to listen to our concerns, a phenomenon that psychologists refer to as “voice”. If we are allowed an opportunity to voice our opinion, we feel more fairly treated than if the decision-maker renders a judgment without first soliciting our input.  Even when the decision does not go our way, we are more accepting of this unfavorable decision so long as we received voice, and believe that our views were taken seriously (Brockner & Wiesenfeld, 1996).

But, how much do we care about the way others are treated by decision-makers? When a decision-maker’s choices influence other people, do we still monitor his or her fairness, and judge the decision to be a fair one if others’ voice are heard?  Or, do we judge a decision to be a fair one only if our voice is heard?

Fairness is in the eye of the beholder, and hence, personality matters in the question how people value fairness for themselves and others. Past research frequently distinguished between proselfs—a category of people who are mainly interested in maximizing self-interest, regardless of the consequences for others—versus prosocials, a category of people who value justice and equality between self and others. These previous studies were mostly in the context of dividing valuable resources, such as money, goods, or services. This literature reveals that, across many situations, proselfs make choices that offer the best prospects of maximizing profit for themselves, and prosocials make choices that may lead to fairness and equality between themselves and others (e.g., Van Lange, 1999). The general consensus is that prosocials are more concerned about justice—and thus more likely to care about the interests of others—than proselfs.

It makes intuitive sense that prosocials are also more likely to desire that decision-makers treat others fairly, and give them voice, when making decisions that are important to these others. But a recent study by Van Prooijen, Ståhl, Eek, and Van Lange (2012) shows that things are not that simple. Although prosocials certainly are more concerned about how others are treated than proselfs, this is not always in the best interest of these others: When it conflicts with their desire for equality, prosocials have a preference for their peers to not get an opportunity to voice their opinion.

In an experiment, participants were either given voice about how much of a valuable resource they should receive (i.e., lottery tickets to win a cash prize), or they were denied such a voice opportunity. Participants also received information about how another participant was treated by the experimenter: Participants read that this other participant similarly was either given or denied a voice opportunity (see also Van den Bos & Lind, 2001). There were thus four conditions, two in which the participants was treated the same as the other (both received voice, or both did not receive voice), and two in which the participant was treated differently than the other (the participant received voice and the other did not; or, the participant did not receive voice but the other did). Participants were then asked questions about how fair they believed the experimenter’s behavior was.

Participants who were classified as proselfs responded in a predictable way: How fair they believed that the experimenter behaved was determined mostly by how the experimenter behaved towards themselves. If proselfs received voice, they saw the experimenter more positively than when they were denied voice, and what happened to the other participant had little influence on their judgments. But perhaps more informative was how prosocials responded to this situation. Prosocials clearly cared more about what happened to the other participant: After having received voice, they found the experimenter fairer when the other received voice as well than if the other participant was denied voice. But more interesting was how prosocials responded when they were denied voice: In that situation they felt substantially better when the other participant was denied voice as well. After all, being both denied voice is equal, and hence according to prosocials, not entirely unfair.

The conclusion provides a new perspective to the question how personality influences people’s responses to the way others are treated. Proselfs do not desire that another person receives voice, nor do they necessarily desire that the other is denied voice; they simply are indifferent about how others treated. Prosocials, in contrast, are more concerned about the way others are treated, but this does not always have consequences that are conducive to the other persons’ interests. They want decision-makers to be consistent: Everyone should be treated the same, and hence, prosocials can accept a denial of voice provided that others are denied voice as well. Prosocials thus value equality, even when this implies “injustice for all”.

Author information:Dr. Jan-Willem van Prooijen is an associate professor at the Department of Social and Organizational Psychology of VU University Amsterdam. He is also affiliated as senior researcher with the NSCR (the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement). He completed his PhD in 2002 at Leiden University. His research focuses on the psychological factors that influence whether or not people evaluate social situations as fair or unfair .

Web Link for the Published Report at Sage Publications, Van Prooijen, J.-W., Ståhl, T., Eek, D., & Van Lange, P. A. M. (2012). Injustice for all or just or me? Social value orientation predicts responses to own versus other’s procedures. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 1247-1258.


Brockner, J., & Wiesenfeld, B. M. (1996). An integrative framework for explaining reactions to decisions: Interactive effects of outcomes and procedures. Psychological Bulletin, 120, 189-208.

Van den Bos, K., & Lind, E. A. (2001). The psychology of own versus other’s treatment: Self-oriented and other-oriented effects on perceptions of procedural justice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 1324-1333.

Van Lange, P. A. M. (1999). The pursuit of joint outcomes and equality in outcomes: An integrative model of social value orientation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 337-349.

Van Prooijen, J.-W., Ståhl, T., Eek, D., & Van Lange, P. A. M. (2012). Injustice for all or just or me? Social value orientation predicts responses to own versus other’s procedures. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 1247-1258.

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