Unfairness is unwanted by both losers and winners
An interest in fairness seems to be wired into us. Actually, research has found that it also appears to be concept that shapes the behavior of a variety of animals, from humans to monkeys to dogs to birds. The most obvious reactions to unfair treatment are generally associated with the wronged party— an angry two-year-old protesting then lunging for his sister’s larger portion of dessert, for instance. But is the beneficiary of a perceived disparity neutral to all this, or do they change their behavior as well?
Testing for behavioral shifts in the winning party seems to be a bit trickier, possibly because those shifts are just smaller. It’s easy to imagine how the ‘winning’ party wouldn’t want to rock the boat that’s favoring them. But a look at basketball statistics reveals that there may be some discomfort on the part of the winners as well, subtle enough that they’re probably not aware of it.
More sportsmanlike than they might realize
Analysis was conducted of fouls in the NBA 2007-2008 season that were clearly erroneous to the supposedly fouled player. In other words, how did a player perform at their free-throws when they knew they shouldn’t have been awarded them in the first place? They’d still have strong incentives to win the game, such as monetary rewards, and nobody would fault them for doing well, which hopefully helped counter any social pressure to “do the right thing.”
Statistically, it looked like players weren’t happy with this unfair advantage. They missed more free-throws than league or personal averages when they shouldn’t have had them in the first place. This gap was even more pronounced when their team was already winning, but it was still apparent even if they were losing and really could have used any point they could get. Presumably nobody wanted to throw the game, but maybe part of the players’ brains did want it to be a fair contest.
My kindergartner asked: If they were worried about being fair, why did they accept the free-throws in the first place? Couldn’t they turn them down? My guess is that that would be fairly deviant behavior in the middle of a game, and possibly not worth the trouble, especially if it embarrasses the referee. Also, The players may not be thinking of any of this consciously. It may all seem fair enough to keep going with the status quo, at least on the surface.
Source: The odd thing that happens when injustice benefits you by Tom Stafford, BBC Future