21 March 2009

Equity vs efficiency

Imagine for a moment that you are in charge of allocating food rations to orphans in a Ugandan refugee camp. Unfortunately there is never enough food for everyone, but if you let one child go hungry with no food, the rest would have sufficient. What would you do, refuse one child food altogether so that the rest had sufficient or share the food out amongst everyone even though that means that no one has sufficient food?

This was the question put to people taking part in a study at the University of Illinois. While considering the question the subjects had their brains scanned to see which parts of the brain were being used in dealing with this moral dilemma. The question being asked was designed to pit logic against emotion. Logically it would be more efficient to let one child starve as you could then save the rest; but emotionally, “we’re all in this together” and, even if you wanted to deny one child food, how could chose which one? The study found that the two area of the brain involved in attempting to resolve this dilemma were the “insula” and the “putamen”. The insula is part of the limbic system and is associated with fairness and emotion and the putamen is part of the cerebral system and is involved in reason and logic.In the majority of cases, the candidates being studied chose to allocate the food evenly. Perhaps our hearts really do rule our heads.

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