Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Freakonomics of Altruism : Are we selfish?

I recently read SuperFreakonomics, the 'sequel' to the bestselling book Freakonomics. The book does not really have a coherent overarching point to make, rather it is a collage of various concepts and experiments used by economists to understand human behavior, particularly economic behavior. It is actually quite an interesting read. The titles of the chapters are obviously only meant to be obscenely eye catching which has a tendency to disappoint when the rationale for the title is explained in the chapter later, but that a minor detail. 

There is a chapter where the authors discuss global warming and the concept of human altruism. Are humans intrinsically altruistic? Or are they primarily selfish creatures? The book explores this through the famous Dictator Game. Subject A is given x amount of money and given the option to share it with another anonymous person Subject B. There is no obligation on A to share, he is also free to choose the amount he wants to share, if at all. When the experiment was done the results indicated that a majority of subject chose to share the money, with the average share being around 20-25%. Children tend to donate even more... close to 50%. So humans are definitely altruistic by nature, right?
Apparently there is an actual dictator card game. Is this a trump card game? People murdered 4 million CLASH!!
You can't run an experiment like this and expect a physicist to listen and appreciate. This experiment obviously has dozens of massive sources of error and bias. Thankfully the book points them out and goes on to redeem economists. 

First of all, the subjects were all volunteers. We would obviously expect  that the people who would volunteer for studies do not represent the average population. In fact you would expect people who volunteer to be decidedly more altruistic than the average population. Secondly the subjects knew they were part of an experiment. Obviously their psychological responses will be modified by that knowledge. Who wants to appear cheap and selfish when specifically part of a psychological experiment?  Therefore the responses given by a biased subject in an academic environment clearly will far from the natural behavior of the average subject.

More importantly, even if the subjects were truly random and were observed secretly, the experiment itself is designed so poorly. To illustrate this, an alternate version of the Dictator experiment was run, but this time A and B were given an equal amount of money. Once again A had the choice to do whatever he wanted, he could share some of his money with B, but more importantly, A could also take whatever amount from B he wanted. This time, it was seen, that on an average people chose to take money from B, around 20-25%, rather than give or do nothing. 

This completely deflates the altruism result from the first version. It can be explained though from the simple observation that people like to do something rather than nothing. Given the choice to either give or do nothing, people would give. But the choice to give take or do nothing, which is a far more realistic choice, completely flips the result. The experiment is still extremely limited in what it can tell us about the true psychological nature of its subjects, but at least its better than the first version. 

A more accurate view, in my opinion and mentioned in the book as well, is that it is possible to design experiments in such a way that you could get whatever result you wanted to get. You could easily show humans as angels as in the Dictator game, of you could show humans as monsters capable of heinous acts, such as in the Stanford prison guard experiment
The 1971 Stanford psychological experiment, you should definitely visit the site and wiki it, I have nothing to add.
So is man utterly selfish? Or is he fundamentally altruistic?
The question relates to a deeper question, is there such a thing as good or bad in the absolute sense, intrinsic to our nature? Or is all of morality just rules that we have made up for our societal construct?

I will write about that in the next post since this one is too long already :P

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