American Sociological Association

Justice Standard Determines Emotional Responses to Over-Reward

How do people feel when they benefit from an unfair reward distribution? Equity theory predicts negative emotion in response to over-reward, but sociological research using referential standards of justice drawn from status-value theory repeatedly finds positive emotional responses to over-reward. Researchers have proposed methodological explanations for these different findings, but we propose a theoretical explanation—that over-reward based on local comparisons with an interaction partner creates guilt and other negative emotions, while over-reward relative to an abstract justice standard leads to more positive emotion. We describe two experiments that address methodological explanations for the status value findings: (1) lack of tangible rewards and (2) lack of sufficiently large over-rewards. We find that people who are over-rewarded relative to their referential expectations still report less negative emotion and more positive emotion than those who receive expected rewards. We report results from a third experiment that demonstrate support for our theoretical argument.


Clay-Warner, J., Robinson, D. T., Smith-Lovin, L., Rogers, K. B., James, K. R.





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