This is Your Brain on Unfairness

Have you ever had a knee-jerk reaction to someone who cuts in front of you on the road (or should I say finger-jerk reaction)? How about glaring at the person who has too many items in the express lane at the grocery store? Or fantasizing about gluing the mouth shut of the person who interrupts you while you are talking and doesn’t let you finish? Do other people’s behaviors annoy you, make you mad or cause you to feel so frustrated you just shut down? This is what your brain looks like under the influence of unfairness.

Several research institutions including Caltech, the University of Arizona, and Baylor and Princeton Universities are using brain scans to study moral decision making. They have found that one of our most basic, primary reactions occurs when our brains determines a situation is “just not fair.

They have found that two sites in the brain light up when a person judges a situation to be unfair or morally wrong. These are instinctive reactions that occur before the logical centers of the brain can be activated.

The result? The moment our brains determine that someone is not playing by the rules, our abilities to deliberate, weigh all sides of an issue and make thoughtful decisions are impaired.

Alan G. Sanfey, a professor from the University of Arizona who helped to conduct research at Princeton, found that when people felt cheated, their emotional system primed them to say “no” immediately without thinking through their response. In fact, the unfairness reaction kicks in faster than the temptation to accept free things, including money.

THE PROBLEM: Not everyone plays by the same set of rules. Cultural and religious background, family upbringing, education and life experiences all combine to help us form a mental frame called, “the world according to me.” Other than legal and safety issues, these rules are often based on personal bias and opinions of what we think is right and wrong. We act as if these rules are cast in stone when actually they differ from one person to the next

THE RESULT: We make snap decisions and react like children, then rationalize and justify our responses with our logical, creative brain. This leaves our world full of smart, aware people who gossip about their neighbors, relish when road hogs get their due and give the slow-moving grocery clerk the evil eye


1. Try to become aware of what your brain is doing in reactive situations. Catch yourself reacting in anger or annoyance. Then take a breath before you say or do anything else to make the situation worse.

2. Determine if your loss is real or not. Is the rule I think was broken that big a deal, really? Did the person who offended you take anything away from you? Did you lose more than a few minutes of your time? Did you lose your self-respect? Did you lose face in front of others? If not, choose to relax and let go. Then focus on something more interesting.

3. Choose to be healthy instead of right. Is this situation important in the big scheme of things? You decide where to put your most precious resource—your energy. Don’t waste it on people who don’t even know who you are or what you need in the moment. If you have the chance to teach them about you and your needs, great. If not, let go of what you cannot control.

In the end, I believe the greatest gift we can give to ourselves is to teach our brains how to let go and “go with the flow.” Don’t beat yourself up for having an emotional reaction. Your brain is only doing what it is supposed to do—protect you. Instead, recognize when you are having an emotional reaction and choose to respond differently, including laughing at yourself more often. Only then will you know what the “flow experience” feels like.

If everyone sought this feeling of flow and worked to help others to experience flow in their work and home life, wouldn’t this world be a wonderful place to live in? It’s time we take charge of our primitive brains, bringing more peace to our lives and to our world.
Sign up for monthly...

We won't share your address with anyone