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Are we all Robin Hoods?

by das monde Thu Apr 26th, 2007 at 08:13:16 AM EST

A study published in Nature claims detection of egalitarian impulses - a will to take from the rich and give to the poor. This must be driving cooperation, the researchers suggest.

Egalitarian motives in humans

Participants in laboratory games are often willing to alter others' incomes at a cost to themselves, and this behaviour has the effect of promoting cooperation. What motivates this action is unclear: punishment and reward aimed at promoting cooperation cannot be distinguished from attempts to produce equality. To understand costly taking and costly giving, we create an experimental game that isolates egalitarian motives. The results show that subjects reduce and augment others' incomes, at a personal cost, even when there is no cooperative behaviour to be reinforced. Furthermore, the size and frequency of income alterations are strongly influenced by inequality. Emotions towards top earners become increasingly negative as inequality increases, and those who express these emotions spend more to reduce above-average earners' incomes and to increase below-average earners' incomes. The results suggest that egalitarian motives affect income-altering behaviours, and may therefore be an important factor underlying the evolution of strong reciprocity and, hence, cooperation in humans.

From the diaries ~ whataboutbob


The purpose of the experiment was to distinguish "cooperative norm enforcement" (through rewards and punishment) and "pursuit/enforcement of equality" as sources of behaviours promoting cooperation.

To separate motives, we use a simple experimental design to examine whether individuals reduce or augment others' incomes when there is no cooperative norm to advance. We call these behaviours 'taking' and 'giving' instead of 'punishment' and 'reward' to indicate that income alteration cannot change the behaviour of the target. Subjects [20 students each session; 120 participants in 6 sessions] are divided into groups having four anonymous members each. Each player receives a sum of money randomly generated by a computer. Subjects are shown the payoffs of other group members for that round and are then provided an opportunity to give [10] 'negative' or 'positive' tokens to other players. Each negative token reduces the purchaser's payoff by one monetary unit (MU) and decreases the payoff of a targeted individual by three MUs; positive tokens decrease the purchaser's payoff by one monetary unit (MU) and increase the targeted individual's payoff by three MUs. Groups are randomized after each round to prevent reputation from influencing decisions; interactions between players are strictly anonymous and subjects know this. Also, by allowing participants more than one behavioural alternative, the experiment eliminates possible experimenter demand effects -- if subjects were only permitted to punish, they might engage in this behaviour because they believe it is what the experimenters want.

Over the five sessions income alteration was frequent. Among participants, 68% reduced another player's income at least once, 28% did so five times or more, and 6% did so ten times or more. Also, 74% of participants increased another player's income at least once, 33% did so five times or more, and 10% did so ten times or more. Most (71%) negative tokens were given to above-average earners in each group, whereas most (62%) positive tokens were targeted at below-average earners in each group.

I am not impressed by this experiment at all. The researchers earnestly eliminate any factors of reputation history, even "take away the option to contribute to the greater good". What are they measuring then?

At best (as authors claim to have designed) the experiment shows people's preferences when there is nothing individually at stake. Ha, how interesting is that? You just get a freedom to alter "fortunes" of others, at a nominal expense in points for yourself. At worst, it is just a game of numbers: you have an option to alter some randomly generated numbers, and the arithmetic operation means nothing for the second round.

What is "cooperation", or "free riding" in this setting? Your status specifically does not depend on your behaviour... Is the experiment supposed to discard or stress the role of altruistic punishers? You do not answer the question "Are people more interested in enforcing income equality or punishing cheaters?" with completely eliminating one of the possibilities.

Of course, the experiment produces some statistics, which perhaps indicates that the experiment setting activates a neuro-circuit that "wants" to equalize a discernable numerical indicator "for everyone". But how  that circuit is activated in the real "tough" world, and to what indicators or situations it relates? The circuit may exist, not too surprisingly, but how low (or high) does it sit within the "module" of social-economic behaviour?

To me, cooperation is not a very surprising phenomenon. It has clear long-term benefits. Even "the selfish" groups smartly cooperate. I would not try to isolate reputation building from cooperative evolutions.

Besides, people are different. Whether we all are greedy or cooperative "deep down", some of us are more selfish or altruistic than others. And we do not have to expcet "normal" distributions here - to function collectively, we may need certain portions of altruists  and greedy bastards. The current proportions might be unstable, because of "amazing" growths and globalizations, or because libertarian ideologies are winning human minds poorely opposed. It is anyone's guess where this will lead.

Just to see how different poeple or social-economic cultures can be, contemplate this:

When I came to Washington from Baltimore in 1974, I had reason to be interested in a profound question: Do Republicans make better poker players than Democrats? My $15,000 salary [remained] unchanged, but the mortgage on my new house was four times the old one. So my Friday night game [became] a matter of survival. Seven years later, I moved over to The Washington Post with a modestly improved salary, a second mortgage, brutal tuition bills, and a higher-stakes poker game.

[Poker] is the quintessential Washington game. A group of men (there are few women) get together to bull and rib while each tries to inflict as much damage and suffering as possible. Presidents - including Warren Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman - have been devotees of the game.

[The] best player I have run into, whom I shall call X to avoid offending Christian right donors to his think tank, is a Republican. [Why] was he so successful? Republicans are much less risk-averse than Democrats, and taking risks is crucial to poker. Howard Baker noted that Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax cut was a "riverboat gamble." The GOP has consistently demonstrated a willingness to risk high deficits, especially to cut taxes that fall on their biggest donors. The party advocating preemptive war is not likely to be cowed by a big bet. Democrats, conversely, are the party of risk-aversion - supportive of the safety net, opposed to new weapons systems, and sympathetic to protective trade policies. They are less able to tolerate the tension and uncertainty of a game in which a week's salary - or more - can be won or lost in a single hand.

Another argument for the view that Republicans make better poker players is that poker rewards what feminists have long considered one of the worst attributes of men: the capacity to "objectify" the other. In poker, friends, colleagues, and even loved ones become subjects of manipulation and deceit - sources of cash who must be persuaded to make mistakes and to misjudge their strengths and your weaknesses. The game, pitting men against men in a zero-sum competition, is the classic form of evolutionary conflict. [The] quick and dirty summary is that the Republican Party's candidates attract a greater percentage of men than women by advocating a male view of life as a game in which the rewards justly go to the winners.

In keeping with this theory of the GOP as the party that embraces male evolutionary psychology, I've noticed that conservative poker players are more willing to go for the kill. They will crush an opponent with big bets in the closing round when the aggressor knows, from the visible cards, that he is a "lock," or sure winner. Many liberals in these circumstances will simply check and turn over their cards to collect a more modest amount. I remember a right-wing game in Alexandria: When we discovered a shortfall of $100, instead of letting the winners absorb it, everyone but me voted to make the losers pay, jacking up their debt to make up the deficit.

[But] conservatives are vulnerable to the one thing that can ruin even the best poker player. Remember [X]? A bachelor until late middle age, X got married a few years ago, and, more recently, he became a father. These joyous events have made him happy. They have also killed his poker game. For the last year, he has been a net loser. X attributes this to the fact that, because of his family obligations, he is both tired and he plays more cautiously. Maybe, but the real culprit is love. In a game where the goal is to inflict as much financial and psychological harm as possible, love is fatal.

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Good find! Who would have thunk it? Robin Hood genes!

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Thu Apr 26th, 2007 at 03:50:20 AM EST
One drawback of the study is that participants were students only! There can be a few resons for suspicion...
by das monde on Thu Apr 26th, 2007 at 06:03:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
However...a lot of research information has been gathered from studies with students...what would we do with out them??

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Thu Apr 26th, 2007 at 08:14:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well I wouldn't get paid for one thing without the little darlings.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Thu Apr 26th, 2007 at 08:38:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Most psychology studies are done on students, because they're cheap - or free - and easy to find.

This fact on its own probably explains a lot about the strange things psychologists believe about human behaviour.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Apr 26th, 2007 at 01:15:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Hey watch it buddy!! </heh>


"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Thu Apr 26th, 2007 at 02:52:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And they have a lot of time on their hands.  You've got to figure that, in a school of 25-40,000 students, you can dig up a few for a study like this.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Fri Apr 27th, 2007 at 08:18:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But I would have thought it was obvious. We are social animals, we are top predator, not because of our sharp teeth or claws, nor because of our physical strength. We are top predator because we co-operate to overwhelm enemies and prey. We are top predator cos our brain allows us to use tools, but again this arises from our co-operative nature. Otherwise we'd all be re-inventing the wheel for ourselves.

You only have to look at the Ten Commandments to see a codification of every pack animal behaviour going.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Thu Apr 26th, 2007 at 03:04:22 PM EST
A hint at why it might not be obvious to everyone was included in the last quote:

In keeping with this theory of the GOP as the party that embraces male evolutionary psychology, I've noticed that conservative poker players are more willing to go for the kill.

Evolutionary psychology is a good route to study why altruism and the propensity to punish cheaters (importantly, often at great personal cost) evolved. If, however, you assume that all behavior is socially constructed and/or that evolutionary psychology is just another form of social darwinism to be used as an excuse for domination, that avenue is closed.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Thu Apr 26th, 2007 at 04:24:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Co-operation trumps conflict  according to T Wright, author of the NonZero Game theory...  a point Bookchin made years ago when discussing the evolution of life vs entropy, and the element of symbiosis that forms the basis of larger organised life forms (we are each legion, in other words, as a previous thread discussed:  vastly complex colonies of co-operating bacteria walking around imagining ourselves as indivisible monads).

the evolutionary history of the chloroplasts is one signpost on the symbiotic pathway of life forms evolving into more complex organisation.  Cooperation -- symbiosis and co-evolution -- probably contributed more to the development of "higher" life forms than conflict/competition...  but for historical and ideological reasons several generations of life sciences rooted in feudalism and capitalism [kinda like religions unable to think of G-d as other than a divine analogue of worldly kings, complete with Throne and servants and armies] have insisted on modelling evolution strictly in terms of conflict, domination and competition in zero sum games (like "markets," actually an artificial human-constructed social game not reflective of biotic realities or even of most of human  evolutionary reality)...

the ability to co-operate is a primary survival skill for us primates...  


The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Thu Apr 26th, 2007 at 08:43:50 PM EST
Whether we "want" that or not, we do have a collective functionality within the planet. Especially now, when our impact is overwhelming.

If we do not care what we do together, our "functionality" is increasingly random (as we depart from Mother Nature, so to speak). Hence, a portion of our activity has adverse effects to the Nature, and back to ourselves. Eventually, the Nature will sort out useful and destructive sides of our existance. Our booms and busts will get integrated into natural rhythms - we might play an important role somewhere without knowing it. But we better be aware of what we are doing together effectively, and agree what we want to do. Otherwise we will be "pushed around" by ever changing circumstances, often self-inflicted or provoked. It is like communication with other intelligence, except that the intelligence is not extra- but very intra-terrestrial.

by das monde on Thu Apr 26th, 2007 at 10:41:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The Cato Institute published a solidly intended article, countering certain notorious arguments:

In Pursuit of Happiness Research: Is It Reliable? What Does It Imply for Policy?

"Happiness research" studies the correlates of subjective well-being, generally through survey methods. A number of psychologists and social scientists have drawn upon this work recently to argue that the American model of relatively limited government and a dynamic market economy corrodes happiness, whereas Western European and Scandinavian-style social democracies promote it. This paper argues that happiness research in fact poses no threat to the relatively libertarian ideals embodied in the U.S. socioeconomic system. Happiness research is seriously hampered by confusion and disagreement about the definition of its subject as well as the limitations inherent in current measurement techniques. In its present state happiness research cannot be relied on as an authoritative source for empirical information about happiness, which, in any case, is not a simple empirical phenomenon but a cultural and historical moving target. Yet, even if we accept the data of happiness research at face value, few of the alleged redistributive policy implications actually follow from the evidence. The data show that neither higher rates of government redistribution nor lower levels of income inequality make us happier, whereas high levels of economic freedom and high average incomes are among the strongest correlates of subjective well-being. Even if we table the damning charges of questionable science and bad moral philosophy, the American model still comes off a glowing success in terms of happiness.

The full article is available in PDF. It is about 40 pages... I just tried to search the text for words "egalitarian" and "inequality":


Pg 18: Greater welfare spending had no statistically significant effect - even on the happiness of the unemployed.

Pg 20: Alberto Alesina, Rafael Di Tella, and Robert MacCulloch have found that inequality in the United States has no effect on the self-reported happiness of the poor. [There] is a small statistically significant negative effect in the United States, but it is driven by the effect of inequality on the rich. This is [very striking] because it is basically the reverse of the situation in Europe, where there is a much larger negative effect of inequality, due mostly to the dislike of inequality by the poor and left-wing voters. This contrast [raises] a crucial point [that] the effect of macroeconomic variables on happiness [is] culturally and ideologically mediated. [The] different effects of inequality in Europe and the United States [must be] due largely to different prevailing attitudes about income mobility. Whether or not their beliefs are realistic, Americans - even the poor and the left-wingers - have a strong faith in the possibility of upward mobility, at least compared to Europeans. [It] is possible to criticize Americans for having unrealistic beliefs about mobility, for they are generally unrealistic, especially among the poor. But if inequality has no negative effect on happiness independent of attitudes toward mobility, it seems that a happiness-promoting policymaker would want to encourage, not discourage, the American conviction in mobility.  

By most measures, income inequality has been rising in the United States. However, inequality in happiness has declined. Rising income inequality [does not] imply a widening gap in satisfaction with life. On the contrary, Americans are becoming more equal in happiness even as the income gap widens. [Jan Ott] finds that rising average levels of happiness go together with decreasing levels of happiness inequality because the "level and equality of happiness depend eventually on the same institutional conditions". [The] institutions of wealth creation are among the most important: "Wealth contributes to higher levels of happiness and creates ample possibilities to reduce inequality in happiness".

Pg 22: There is almost no evidence in the happiness literature to support the idea that Americans would be better off with either lower levels of income inequality or a policy of more generous welfare transfers.

Pg 31: [We] have been told little about how long a representative person in a society can expect to live at the average level of happiness. For example, most cross-national comparative studies can't see the difference between two equally happy societies, one of which has an average lifespan of 30 years and the other of which has an average of 80. Veenhoven's HLY measure takes longevity into account. [The] exact effect of rising wealth on the trend of rising HLY is difficult to tease out, as GDP growth tends to correlate with so many other positive indicators. [As Veenhoven shows], purchase power per head is the strongest single determinant of HLY. The fact that correlations for [almost all] other indicators  weaken after controlling for wealth suggests that wealth and growth explain, at least in part, the levels of other positive social conditions, such as freedom, tolerance, civil rights, lower levels of corruption, discrimination against women, and inequality in happiness.  

Ft 120 [Pg 40]: And again, to the horror of egalitarian redistributionists, we find that higher levels of income inequality correlate positively with happy-life-years, and higher levels of welfare spending [correlate] negatively with happy-life-years when adjusted for wealth. The inequality result is partly due to the fact that Latin American countries tend to have high levels of income inequality and also report unusually high levels of happiness. Another part of the explanation, though, lies in the fact that societies can induce growth in part by allowing entrepreneurs to keep much of the profits from economic gambles, a tiny few of which pay off massively, producing astronomical levels of income in the top percentiles of the distribution.

What do we make of this?

One thing I notice is that this article admits raising income inequality in the US, while other article of this year in the same series disputes that. Cato should make up its mind!  

by das monde on Fri Apr 27th, 2007 at 02:45:15 AM EST
What do we make of this?

That Cato wants to spend less on welfare than we are now.  This isn't terribly surprising.  People are raised to believe that being on welfare is -- shall we say -- less-than-admirable, so it shouldn't surprise us to find the social norm trumping the income effect.  Most people on welfare will likely tell you that they're not proud of being on it, and would feel much better having a job and providing for themselves.  This isn't a reliable area to study the relationship between income and happiness, in my opinion.

Cato can't make up its mind, because it's made up of a lot of different people -- ranging from typical policy entrepreneurs to visiting academics.  Most likely, I suspect, the articles disputing the rise in income inequality involve bad statistics.  Even the most hardcore libertarian professors I had in college -- some of whom have written for Cato -- did not dispute it, although they were, of course, a lot less likely to find it worrying compared with the liberals.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.

by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Fri Apr 27th, 2007 at 08:32:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't know if you noticed but there is a sort of follow-up discussion of that article here:

http://www.cato-unbound.org/2007/04/08/darrin-m-mcmahon/the-pursuit-of-happiness-in-perspective/

with responses from various sources, being my favorite Barry Shwartz...

by Torres on Fri Apr 27th, 2007 at 09:53:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks! Though the "follow-up" articles are  dated slightly earlier :-) The discussion is stimulating indeed.

[In] both Europe and America the logic of the pursuit of happiness, like that of other universal rights, was inexorably in the direction of extension and expansion. [...]

Thus, one of the most striking developments in Western societies over the last several hundred years is the steady expansion of the hope and expectation of happiness in this life. Concomitant with this expansion has been the steady erosion of other ways of conceiving of life's purpose and end. If other ways of doing so have not been entirely abandoned -- there are those who still live for virtue, honor, one's homeland, or family name -- in a world that places a premium on good feeling and positive emotion, these other ends have nowhere near the power to channel and constrain our choices that they once did. The same may be said of religion -- long considered the ultimate end [...]

Hmm, expansion... Can we be happy only expanding? Or for real excitement, only expanding with acceleration?

It may seem we have discovered some "real" way to happiness, worth abandoning honor and other virtues. But what if we are mistaken: the "discovery" (whatever it is, though possibly it is related to wealth pursuit) will end up soon as it always ended before, and we will be left building up the same abandoned virtues.

In the first place, we would probably do well to remind ourselves that worrying about happiness is a luxury -- the privilege of peoples whose more pressing needs have been satisfied already. With longer lifespans and more abundant food supplies, greater security and more creature comforts than ever before, we are free to contemplate what those exposed to the miseries of famine, chaos, and disease can only dream.

On one level, then, we worry about happiness today with such single-minded focus because we can: Inhabitants of the world's developed nations are the most fortunate creatures to have walked the face of the earth. And yet for all our focus on happiness it is by no means clear that we are happier as a result. Might we not even say that our contemporary concern is something of an inauspicious sign, belying a deep anxiety and doubt about the object of our pursuit? Does the fact that we worry so much about being happy suggest that we are not?

Worrying about happiness, or not feeling happy, can be luxury indeed. But what we are supposed to worry about when basic material needs are satisfied? What is the best purpose then?

[The] "progress paradox" is only a paradox if one assumes that human beings should be getting happier all the time. [But] whether it is a sound assumption is by no means clear. Evolutionary psychologists, for example, extrapolating from the theories of Darwin, point out that human beings have a tendency to adapt quickly to pleasures at hand. To be too happy for too long, apparently, is not an effective adaptive trait. Better to be a little bit anxious -- a little bit unhappy -- much of the time, so that we are motivated to continue our pursuits.

To speak in this way of natural limits is to argue, in effect, against pursuing happiness too hard. That may sound like strange advice to American ears, and yet it is counsel that close observers of American society have felt moved to offer before. Even Thomas Jefferson understood that "perfect happiness ... was never intended by the Deity to be the lot of one of his creatures." John Adams [observed] in his youth that if we sit down late in life to "make an estimate in our minds of the happiness we have enjoyed, and the misery we have suffered" we shall find that "the overbalance of happiness is quite inconsiderable." We shall learn, he cautions, that "we have been, through the greatest part of our lives, pursuing shadows." Tocqueville stumbled upon a similar thought in Democracy in America, noting of the inhabitants of the United States that "No one could work harder to be happy." The American, he observed, will continually change paths "for fear of missing the shortest cut leading to happiness."


Can a person decide his happiness? Can a leader or a government decide happiness?..

If you follow words, Dalai Lama says that the purpose of life is happiness, nevertherless.

by das monde on Sat Apr 28th, 2007 at 12:22:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
One conclusion immediately drawn is the authors, like most of the intellectuals (sic) at CATO, are third-rate hacks.

Quoting from the quotes:

"In its present state happiness research cannot be relied on as an authoritative source for empirical information about happiness"

Therefore,

"The data show that neither higher rates of government redistribution nor lower levels of income inequality make us happier, whereas high levels of economic freedom and high average incomes are among the strongest correlates of subjective well-being."

So the research that cannot be relied upon as authoritive show [what CATO is paid to conclude].

I do not expect RWAs, nor anyone on the Right actually, to understand this but, in my funny little world, if data does not support an argument then you cannot use that data to support an argument.  

Let us observe:

flapping your arms while running around screaming like a chicken does not mean you can fly.  It does no good to say, "Let us assume flapping your arms while running around screaming like a chicken does mean you can fly" and work out landing schedules, landing fees, and air traffic control patterns at the local airport.  

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Fri Apr 27th, 2007 at 12:08:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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