It was January 2000 and McDonald’s Singapore had just launched 6 pairs of Hello Kitty dolls together with her boyfriend, Daniel. Dressed in different costumes they were to be sold in low-priced Happy Meal combinations across their 114 outlets. So began what became known as the “Hello Kitty Wars”. At its peak, almost 300,000 Singaporeans representing 8% of its population crowded their stores in the hope of securing the limited edition trinket. The resulting fights, squabbles and queue jumping made headlines and required Government intervention to restore calm. In Singapore, such behaviour is labelled using the Hokkien word “kiasu” – literally the fear of losing – that you will miss out on your rightful share.
A neuro-economist may instead choose to describe this as, not some unique cultural phenomenon, but instead, an example on a national scale of the human sensitivity to the notion of fairness. Singaporeans preferring to queue for hours to ensure they share in a reward that could otherwise be obtained for a few dollars more at a retail store. The research reveals that our reward circuitry is sensitive to both advantageous and disadvantageous inequality. Our sense of fairness can impel us to make irrational economic decisions and to punish altruistically if we perceive that others are enjoying greater relative benefits.
In the work-place, we learn that rewarding performance with individually targeted monetary outcomes can step into dangerous territory. Our sense of fairness will quickly set in place a bonus escalation mind-set. The relative value of the benefit diminishes as we compare ourselves with the financial rewards of our peers.
Fortunately, fMRI evidence indicates that rewards of a charitable or social form can also trigger positive motivational behaviours. This suggests the inflationary waste of an individually centric incentive can be substituted by, potentially, donations made to a worthy cause. At one organisation, a small step in this direction has seen customer Christmas gifts replaced by, e.g. buying a goat on his behalf from World Vision. A goat can provide 16 cups of milk a day to hungry children for many years. Meanwhile, thousands of Hello Kitty dolls find themselves buried in land fills.