Is fairness intuitive? An experiment accounting for subjective utility differences under time pressure

  • Anna Louisa Merkel
  • Johannes Lohse
Original Paper


Evidence from response time studies and time pressure experiments has led several authors to conclude that “fairness is intuitive”. In light of conflicting findings, we provide theoretical arguments showing under which conditions an increase in “fairness” due to time pressure indeed provides unambiguous evidence in favor of the “fairness is intuitive” hypothesis. Drawing on recent applications of the Drift Diffusion Model (Krajbich et al. in Nat Commun 6:7455, 2015a), we demonstrate how the subjective difficulty of making a choice affects decisions under time pressure and time delay, thereby making an unambiguous interpretation of time pressure effects contingent on the choice situation. To explore our theoretical considerations and to retest the “fairness is intuitive” hypothesis, we analyze choices in two-person binary dictator and prisoner’s dilemma games under time pressure or time delay. In addition, we manipulate the subjective difficulty of choosing the fair relative to the selfish option. Our main finding is that time pressure does not consistently promote fairness in situations where this would be predicted after accounting for choice difficulty. Hence, our results cast doubt on the hypothesis that “fairness is intuitive”.


Distributional preferences Cooperation Time pressure Response times Cognitive processes Drift Diffusion Models 

JEL Classification

C32 C72 C91 D64 D91 H41 



We would like to thank Christoph Vanberg, Gustav Tinghög, Ariel Rubinstein, Ernst Fehr, Tobias Pfrommer, Daniel Heyen, Gert Pönitzsch, as well as seminar participants at the University of Heidelberg, ZEW Mannheim, IfW Kiel, Thurgau Experimental Economics Meeting, IMEBESS Rome, Kings College London and ESA Bergen for their helpful comments. In addition, we would like to thank the editors as well as two anonymous referees for their tremendously helpful feedback on an earlier version of this paper. 

Supplementary material

10683_2018_9566_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (874 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (pdf 874 KB)


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Copyright information

© Economic Science Association 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EconomicsUniversity of HeidelbergHeidelbergGermany
  2. 2.Department of EconomicsUniversity of BirminghamBirminghamUK

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