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The unfair pill

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We’re living in unfair times – some of the most unfair in recent history. And now WDDTY may have come up with a reasonable answer as to why.

It may have something to do, believe it or not, with aspirin and acetaminophen, those everyday painkillers we buy and consume by the handful to blunt the pain of everyday living.

The problem is, as we point out in our News Focus this month (page 20), these painkillers also blunt our emotions.

As Bryan Hubbard writes, psychologist Naomi Eisenberger and her colleagues from UCLA have been studying the sources of pain in the brain. They’ve discovered that the very same part of the brain that registers physical pain (the anterior cingulate cortex) also registers social pain, such as rejection, exclusion – or even a sense of unfairness. And now we have discovered that treating the one also affects the other.

Recent studies show that a single dose of acetaminophen blunts physical pain, but also numbs us to social pain like hurt feelings or the outrage we generally feel when things are unfair, or even our positive feelings toward a social group.

In other words, painkillers make us a little less human, and a lot less concerned about other people and whether they are kind or cruel to us, or indeed whether we return a good deed. A lot less concerned about empathy and unfairness.

Just think of the implications of this, considering the amount of painkilling we currently do. As our cover story points out (page 28), in the United States alone, doctors hand out some 259 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers – almost one for every man, woman and child in the country. In one year alone, Americans spent about $4 billion on over-the-counter painkillers.

In Britain, people take an average of 373 painkillers every year, according to the British Medical Association study; one in every 20 adults takes at least six painkillers every time they’re feeling under the weather. And that was 13 years ago.

All those people getting blunted to sensitivity to others. All those people addicted to drugs. All those people not giving a damn anymore about whether things are unfair.

Here’s the big issue. The soul of any successful society is turn-taking, or reciprocity – a sense of fair play. The moment individuals begin to cluster in a group larger than the nuclear family, they appear to evolve a strong, in-built sense of fairness.

Our survival depends upon our ability to give each one of us a turn, and the extent to which any society begins to fray relates to a deterioration of a sense of fairness and basic reciprocity.

This has been demonstrated in the extensive work on fairness by Swiss economist Ernst Fehr from the University of Zurich, now based at the the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology.

Fehr has exhaustively tested his theory that people are inherently fair with a classic game theory experiment called the Ultimatum Game. In this game, volunteers are randomly paired, although never allowed to meet.

The pairs are then split off into “proposers” and “responders.” The proposer is given a sum of money – say, $10 – and allowed to offer the responder any amount of money, from $1 to $10, that he sees fit, while the responder’s job is simply to accept or reject the offer.

If he accepts it, he will receive the designated sum, while the proposer keeps the rest. If the responder rejects the offer, however, both leave empty-handed.

This is a one-time-only offer, and both parties know this – hence the name “ultimatum.” There is no possibility of holding out for a better deal. Furthermore, as the game is only played once, the two players understand that there will never be any reprisal.

If human beings were innately selfish, it would make perfect sense for the proposer always to keep the lion’s share and make the most derisory offer, and for the responder always to accept it, as something, no matter how little, is better than nothing. There is no social pressure to be generous in the game, as the two will never interact again.

In practice, this scenario rarely occurs with any pair in any society, even indigenous ones that don’t have currency, but play for tobacco.

The most common offer is 50 percent, and the overall average ranges from 43-48 percent. Even though it means they stand to lose out personally, most people would rather share equally with people they haven’t met and never will meet again.

And now we may have the missing piece to all this. The vast disparity between rich and poor in America and Western countries may not be solely down to the banking system or globalization.

Maybe it also has something to do with that giant dope-dealer, the pharmaceutical industry, which has made numb junkies of us all.

What do you think? Start a conversation over on the... WDDTY Community

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