Friday, November 24, 2006

Altruistic Punishment and Class Envy

A touch of class envy, or something quite like it, may be hardwired into humans. Most societies have cues which discourage conspicuous displays of superiority.

It is true that absolute egalitarianism seems to be rare, even in hunter-gatherer tribes, and most groups expect leaders to show some elevation, because they represent the prestige of the group to outsiders. But on the whole, ostentation is discouraged.

Because ostentation exists, we might speculate that the social cues are not very powerful. Yet at the day-to-day level, among families, neighbors, and clans, they are quite powerful. The peasant’s disapproval of the Lord of the Manor has little effect, yet both are affected by disapproval within their immediate circles.

Altruistic Punishment is thought to be a partial explanation of how cooperation is enforced. Members of the tribe will spend their own resources unasked to punish those breaking the social rules. The cost may be the risk of confrontation, as a person who intervenes against a bully, or even a criminal. People may go well out of their way and cease productive activity in order to report a miscreant to the authorities. Being a busybody carries social risk in itself, but some of it seems necessary.

If punishment seems unnecessarily negative for this concept, you may think of it as "holding others accountable."

Most studies of altruistic punishment are artificial, laboratory constructions, but these may illustrate the simpler social structures which complex interactions are based on. In one set of experiments, subjects were told that $20 would be divided by an anonymous other between the two of them. If they accepted the deal, it would go forward. If they rejected it, neither would get anything. Measuring personal advantage only, then, subjects should accept any deal offered, even if the “other” kept $19 and gave you $1. Hey, it’s a free dollar. Why complain?

But people punish that behavior. They often reject a 17-3 payout, giving up the $3 for the purpose of signaling to the other: “you should not act this way.” There is a sense that it is bad for all of us if people are allowed to go around acting like that. Rejecting an offer may also be an expression of refusing to be humiliated. To be openly seen as not receiving the tribe’s resources, and accepting that situation, may worsen one’s status in the group. When the division is believed to be controlled by chance, people rarely reject any offered sum.

As the number approaches a 10-10 split, fewer people reject the deal. Even 12-8 deals are seldom rejected with an anonymous other. If subjects have been introduced to the person they believe is dividing the money (the division is in fact controlled by the experiment and has nothing to do with the person introduced), they insist on greater fairness.

There are related topics of people’s attentiveness to procedural fairness, the idea of relative rather than absolute poverty, and our perceptions of how the decision maker acquired the position, all of which I will tackle in other posts For the moment, it is enough to note that simply receiving a sum of money one would not have otherwise had is not enough for us, somehow. This has political implications for what economic policies people will accept. Advocates for more purely free-market policies like to point out that “everyone does a little better – so what if some do a lot better?” Advocates for more redistributive policies highlight the greater disparity between the high and the low incomes. To those people, that some benefited enormously while some benefited only a little is seen as a problem.

This second attitude, which conservatives tend to dismiss as foolish class envy and misunderstanding how the system works, may actually be part of our natural makeup. That wouldn’t make it right, of course, as violence, robbery, and rapine also seem to be preloaded into our nature. We may automatically assume that if A receives an extra $12 while we receive only $8, that something by definition must be unfair. We expect the tribe’s resources to be divided evenly, unless we can see a clear connection between A’s actions and the increase for all. If A is a better hunter or more skillful trader with other tribes, we can see how he might deserve a greater share. But if we don’t see that connection, we consider ourselves equally deserving – whether we are or not.


Anonymous said...

This seems to dovetail nicely with René Girard on hardwired rivalry of desire for imitation, the dangers of social destabilization by envy, and the scapegoating violence that reunites the group temporarily.

You may well be correct that policies need to take this into account, without scuttling productivity by gross redistributionism.

One problem is the psychological likelihood that envy is not solved, nor amity restored, by simply seizing goods and giving them to the envious. In my experience, the envious still cling to resentment and unhappiness as a kind of free-floating constitutional tendency, or at least habit.

Anonymous said...

To give the good Baptist school kid answer: the first person I heard talk about this was Jeeeeeeeeeeesus. Seriously though, it always interested me that he devoted an entire parable to this topic, and came out strongly for the "work for what you agreed on, who are you to determine what's fair" camp.

Anonymous said...

Good post, and good comments.
Some people, obviously those who are influenced easily by envy and greed, love any bill that "sticks" it to the "man", and gives them a free lunch.
They never realize that it's the poor who suffer the most when the "man" has his wealth redistributed.
Sticking it to the man results in higher prices, higher unemployment, hurts productivity, and hurts the poor.
The envious pay alot for that free lunch promised by politicians.
Alot more than it cost prior to the snake-oil pitch of the savvy politician, who exploits the greed of the envious.
Class warfare is an assault on liberty itself, and only increases suffering.
It is stealing made legal.
Nothing good ever results from envy and greed.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

bs king - yessss, it's interesting that since the Enlightenment there has been insistence that Original Sin doesn't exist. Now that it's creeping back in via science, it is also taken as evidence against God when applied in reverse. We are hard to please.

Anonymous said...

First Thought Department: So, does this mean the 500K I was going to give you will be rejected when (ah, FAT CHANCE) I win the Lotto?

Second Thought Department: Ben USN (Ret) is right on the money (no pun intended). In the USA, and right 'round the world, very many will kill the Goose laying the proverbial golden eggs. Stated another way, if I'm not rich and you are, I will destroy your wealth. People, too often, just do not "get" that economically all sides can win. Note: I do hate to link "winning" with the acquisition of things material, but most of the world does.

Meanwhile, look at all the "stuff" people are buying....and still many insist they are poor. Hmmm. The could have gotten a book from the public library. They could have gone to college (low cost for rewards gained), ah, I am going on and on.

Thanks for your attention.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Tad.
Poverty in the United States is truly a relative term these days.
When I was a kid, poverty meant hungry all the time, no home, no car, no TV, stereo, or other luxuries, and thread bare clothes and worn out shoes.
This link by the Heritage Foundation describes a different poverty-
Where most in poverty today own 1 or more cars, a home, microwave oven, Tv's, VCR/DVD players, stereos, phones, etc., and rarely go hungry.
You, and most of us here, know that the standards of poverty in most countries are much lower than they were when I was a boy, let alone at present.
Politicians have raised the goalposts on poverty in the US, for obvious reasons.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, that link should continue.
After research it should read-