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  '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.