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See? Economists Aren’t Only Advising Us To Be Selfish Pricks

September 11, 2009

Just mostly advising us to do so!

But thanks to neuroeconomics and behavioral economics (which I’ve gone into in the past on this blog), we have some more evidence that human nature is not that of the theoretical Economic Man.

People who felt gratitude because of their experience in the first part of the experiment gave away 25 percent more tokens than did control volunteers, whose emotions were not manipulated. This held whether the partner was the person to whom they felt grateful or a stranger, showing that their cooperativeness—acting for the greater good rather than out of pure self-interest—was not driven by a sense of reciprocity. Instead, says DeSteno, “the more grateful one felt as a result of receiving assistance, the more cooperatively one acted. . . . [G]ratitude functions to enhance cooperative as opposed to selfish economic behavior.”

He speculates that natural selection favored the emergence of gratitude, which some of our ape cousins also seem to feel, because it helped our ancestors form stable “exchange relationships”—”you shared your mammoth with me; here, have some of my berries.” But gratitude, this study shows, triggers cooperative, for-the-common-good behavior at the expense of selfishness even when the recipient of that cooperation is not the one you feel grateful to. Gratitude may thus “increase the odds for cooperation” with lots of other people. And thus was born “pay it forward.”

from Newsweek

What’s interesting about this experiment is that the form and kind of help given by the first actor shares nothing in common with the particular expression of gratitude that it seems to cause later.  According to Sharon Begley, “the volunteers finished one long and annoying task only to be told they have to do it all over because the computer recording their answers crashed—but then a fellow volunteer (actually one of the researchers) fixes the computer, at some cost to herself in time and effort but saving the real volunteers from having to redo the test.”

I’d like to see the impact of small courtesies on other opportunities for generosity, like tipping for example.  Does holding the door open for a middle-aged couple put them in a mood more likely to leave a 25% tip rather than the standard 18?  If a stranger offers you her bus schedule are you more likely to show a lost traveler the way to an ATM?

A homeless person offered me part of his KFC chicken breast combo while we were waiting for the bus in Koreatown last week, and 2 hours later I picked up the tab for a meal with two friends.  Would I have done that without having my mood elevated by the unexpected generosity of a man who has to beg to feed himself?

Maybe evolution has programmed our brains to facilitate good karma.  In most game theory, acting purely on self-interest often offers the individual her greatest expected value (though not highest possible value) while giving a sub-optimal result for the rest of the group.  If we were simply strategizing creatures, disconnected with our emotions, we would lower our risks of being taken advantage of but at the cost of producing a worse society.

Clans that didn’t co-operate perhaps gathered less food, produced weapons at lower rates, and failed to protect members from wild animal attacks, allowing those clans whose emotions encouraged gratitude to out-compete and either wipe out or subsume them.  Even modern nations can seem great on paper (lots of resources) but suffer from poor intangibles (a divided, distrustful and demoralized people).  Or maybe I’m thinking about the Cincinnati Bengals.

(h/t Tyler Cowen)

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