Does unfairness have a ripple effect? The impact of independent and interdependent self-construals
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In the present research, I examine whether independent and interdependent self-construals influence behaviour toward innocent others following unfair treatment from an authority. Fairness researchers have documented many negative effects of unfair treatment on recipients’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. From the recipient’s perspective, unfair treatment is a sign that the recipient is inferior and unworthy of respect, leading to decreased self-esteem (e.g., Tyler, Degoey, & Smith, 1996). Although this decrease in self-esteem among recipients of unfair treatment may be universal, individual differences in behavioural reactions to unfairness are evident. Prior research and theory suggest that the need to maintain one’s self-esteem is fundamental (e.g., Maslow, 1968; Rogers, 1961; Rosenberg, 1979), and that individuals engage in a wide range of behaviours to maintain their self-esteem (Steele, 1988). Recent research suggests that the types of behaviours individuals use to restore their self-esteem following unfairness vary according to the source of their self-esteem. Specifically, individuals with a stronger independent self-construal, who derive self-esteem from being unique and getting ahead, may be more likely to enact revenge against those who treat them unfairly (Zdaniuk & Bobocel, 2009). Conversely, those with a stronger interdependent self-construal, who derive self-esteem from maintaining harmonious relationships, may be more likely to forgive (Bobocel & Zdaniuk, 2009). At times, engaging in revenge or forgiveness toward the perpetrator of unfairness may be difficult, especially if the perpetrator is an authority. In these situations, recipients of unfairness may maintain their self-esteem by engaging in unfair or fair behaviours directed toward innocent others. I predicted that after experiencing unfair treatment from an authority, individuals with a strong (versus weak) independent self-construal would be more likely to act unfairly toward fellow group members, and that individuals with a strong (versus weak) interdependent self-construal would be more likely to act fairly. These predictions were tested in two laboratory studies and one field study. Although the results were not consistent across the three studies, some support was found for both predictions. In addition, the findings are consistent with the notion that self-esteem maintenance was a mechanism underlying the predicted effects of the self-construals. The implications of the current findings for the fairness literature are discussed, and directions for future research are proposed. To avoid ripple effects of unfairness in the workplace, organizational authorities are advised to promote an interdependent, rather than independent, work environment.