Who is entitled to how much in life, and what do people perceive as just? Experiments show how need-based justice is negotiated in groups. Outsiders have a harder time asserting their claims. © Benjamin Disinger/unsplash

There are few terms as hotly contested as “justice”. “Resolving issues of distribution in a group and the notion of what is considered just and fair are fundamental questions in a society,” says Bernhard Kittel, a social scientist at the Institute for Economic Sociology at the University of Vienna. This issue is so complicated because “justice” can take many forms and relate to many different principles.

Three broad categories are usually distinguished today: the principle of equality (everyone is to receive the same amount of something), the principle of equity, which is performance-based (German: Leistungsgerechtigkeit), and then there is need-based justice (German: Bedarfsgerechtigkeit). The latter is the type investigated by an international research group of the German Research Foundation (DFG) going by the name of “Need-based Justice and Distribution Procedures” (FOR2104). While the project has its home base at the Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg, it includes a total of eight sub-projects (ranging from philosophy to economics to sociology) which are spread across various universities. With Bernhard Kittel and his team, the University of Vienna is involved through the DACH programme of the FWF, DFG and SNF.

What do others feel is just?

It may not come as a surprise that there is not only one type of justice that will come to bear in a person’s life. “In the scholarly literature, the predominant opinion considers different principles to be of relevance in different social constellations,” Kittel explains. In an anonymous market situation, the trend goes towards performance justice. In groups subject to the postulate of equality on the other hand – a group of students would be a classic example – the principle of equality does take precedence.

Need-based justice means that every member of a community gets as much as is necessary for their life and for participating in society. “You will easily understand that the challenging notion here is ‘need’,” says Kittel. “My part of the project is about just that: when do others recognise someone’s claimed needs?” As there is a blurred transition between “need” and “want”, the question is: under what circumstances will others accept and recognise as just someone’s declared need?

Need-based justice is an aspect that plays a particularly important role in close-knit social communities, such as in families. The “classic” example for illustration: siblings put together money to buy a gift for their parents and contribute different amounts depending on their financial possibilities. In families this will often work well because the family members know each other well, and there is a high degree of social control when it comes to individual needs. Problems will arise as soon we are talking about a large-sized group. In that case, the only way to protect the group against excessive individual demands will often be to introduce formal rules.

“Our research group works on the basis of two main hypotheses: objectivisation can be established through either transparency or externalisation,” Kittel explains. Either the others get an insight into someone’s life situation and can thus check the legitimacy of that person’s claims. Or the decision is outsourced, for instance to an external commission.

Bringing social values into play in the lab

What do Kittel and his colleagues actually do in the context of their project? How does one transfer such a social situation into the laboratory? Basically, they are building a simple experimental set-up. Three people who cannot see each other but can communicate play a kind of game for real money. The three players need to divide 24 points among themselves. In order to advance one round and increase their win the players need to get a different number of points each. A round is over when at least two out of three agree on a particular distribution. So there is always the chance to overrule someone. Here is an example of a very simple variant of the experiment: player 1 needs 1 point, player 2 needs 5 points, player 3 needs 9 points. In this case, player 3 has to convince the two others to give up possible payouts for his or her sake.

Numerous variants are being played through: in some cases, communication channels are restricted. Sometimes a social closeness is established between two of the three participants through joint tasks. Sometimes the participants know whether the others are telling the truth about their respective amount of points required and sometimes they do not. “As soon as I care about the others’ payout, I am no longer purely oriented towards my own material benefit,” Kittel explains. “At that point, social values come into play.” These values can lead one to recognise the needs claimed by third parties. The researchers are interested in finding out under what conditions the players will do this.

Transparency increases recognition of need

According to Kittel, the results of the laboratory experiments are quite clear. Equal distribution – given the total of 24 points that would be 8 points for each player – is the point of reference. “If a player’s need is below this threshold, it is usually met.” If it goes above the threshold, the recognition rate drops significantly. “That means that people are willing to help the other person as long as they themselves don’t get less than the other person.” It also shows that transparency does indeed have an impact. When an individual’s need exceeds the level of equal distribution, the recognition of this need by others decreases significantly more if each of the players only knows their own need than if this need is known by all. And there is yet another pronounced effect: if an outsider in a group of three meets two people who are socially close, the outsider’s needs are only accepted if they are low.

“There are intense debates in research about how well laboratory results can be transferred to a real-life social situation,” notes Kittel. But many of the results tally well with things observed in reality. The outsider experiment, for instance, simulates the phenomenon of migration, where there is a high level of scepticism towards newcomers receiving high social benefits. “Even if the results are not perfectly transferable, laboratory studies are useful because they demonstrate the robustness of social mechanisms. They can show us the areas in our everyday reality that merit closer attention.”


Kittel B., Neuhofer S., Schwaninger M.: The Dark Side of Transparent Needs. An Experiment on Information and Need-based Justice, Working Paper 2021 (pdf)

Kittel B., Neuhofer S., Schwaninger M.: The impact of need on distributive decisions: Experimental evidence on anchor effects of exogenous thresholds in the laboratory, in: Plos One 2020

Personal details

Bernhard Kittel graduated in political science in Vienna. Career steps include heading a working group on labour and social research at the University of Amsterdam and setting up the “Group for Social Research Methods (MSW)” at the University of Oldenburg, which also includes an experimental laboratory. In 2012, he was appointed Professor of Economic Sociology at the University of Vienna. Since 2020, he has been the head of the “Austrian Corona Panel Project”, which also receives FWF funding. The two phases of the project “Distributional Preferences and Need-based Justice in Networks” (2015–2022) receive a total of EUR 685,456 in funding from the Austrian Science Fund FWF.

Project website