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If I’m Not for Myself, Who’ll Be for Me?

Opportunism and promoting cooperation co-exist in the moral ecology of groups

In his presidential address to the American Psychological Association in 1975, the psychologist Donald Campbell suggested that biological evolution steers humans towards a greater degree of selfishness than is optimal for society in part because moral exhortations to curb selfishness are so ubiquitous in our social environments. Appeals to act altruistically—far more common in every world culture than are reminders not to neglect one’s own interests—nudge us towards a workable equilibrium. But suggestions to look out for oneself are also found, at least occasionally. There’s no admonition to look out for oneself among the Ten Commandments, but a famous remark of the 1st century rabbinic commentator Hillel begins: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

Campbell suggested that systems of moral exhortation biased exclusively towards altruism would make sense if “the biological bias [of human nature] is such that no deviations on the too altruistic side … occur”. The presence of admonitions like Hillel’s suggests, however, that at least some people are in danger of being too selfless for their own good. Factors in the social environment combined with various genetic predispositions, including unusually strong receptiveness to moral socialization, may cause such hyper-social types to appear on occasion.

Economists who study social dilemma interactions like those of the voluntary contribution experiments discussed in my last post (“When Nice Guys Finish First”) have repeatedly uncovered indications of heterogeneity in their subject pools. In an influential paper on aversion to inequality, for instance, the Zurich-based behavioral economist Ernst Fehr and collaborator Klaus Schmidt reviewed the behaviors of hundreds of subjects in various experimental bargaining and dilemma games and concluded that about 40% could be considered to show strong concern for the disadvantage of others, another 30% mild concern, and 30% no concern. Fehr and collaborators Urs Fischbacher and Simon Gӓchter similarly characterized subjects’ willingness to contribute tokens to a group project rather than maximize own short-run interest, classifying them into “conditional cooperators,” accounting for some 50%, free riders, 30%, and other types, 20%.

Differences in subjects’ behavioral tendencies in the contribution game suggest that a good way to understand how people interact in situations of conflicting group and individual interest is to think of each society or group as having an “ecology” within which people of different moral types fill different social niches. Group outcomes evolve differently over time depending on the mix of types present.

In the simplest version of the voluntary contribution game—a game in which maximum contributions are good for the group, but each individual can do better by free riding—the more cooperative subjects have no possibility of excluding or disciplining the more opportunistic ones. The latter try to free ride on the contributions of the former, who respond by reducing their contributions in self-protection. It’s this dynamic, rather than it simply taking some time for people to learn that contributing is irrational, which explains the typical decline of contributions that experimenters observe. Evidence includes the fact that when experimental economists at George Mason University intentionally grouped higher and lower contributors with those of their own type, without informing the subjects of the grouping procedure, the high contributors tended to persist in their behavior rather than becoming free riders.

Interesting lessons in group moral ecology have come from variants of the game in which, after learning how much each fellow group member has put into the group account, an individual has the opportunity to spend money to inflict financial losses on whichever of the others she wishes to at a small cost to herself. Whereas in the simpler game cooperative types can only defend themselves by reducing their contributions, the punishment version allows them to try the alternative strategy of continuing to contribute while punishing the free riders and hopefully inducing them to start pulling their weight. In early trials of this experiment on student subjects in Zurich, Fehr and Gӓchter found that contributions gradually rose rather than fell. Average earnings were eventually higher in settings with punishment opportunities than in those without, although substantial resources were lost on initial punishments.

My former student Umut Ӧnes and I studied group moral ecology in the voluntary contribution game with punishment opportunities by first letting subjects play the game in randomly formed groups of anonymous partners and then letting the computer classify them by propensities to contribute and punish. We found that we could assemble relatively cooperative and efficient or relatively opportunistic and inefficient groups by varying group assignments, though subjects had no knowledge that new groups they were placed in were formed in anything but a random way. We showed that, given a typical population which is heterogeneous in its inclinations, there’s a trade-off between, on the one hand, creating a few high-achieving groups composed entirely of cooperators, and on the other, maximizing average performance by sprinkling all groups with both some free riding types and some moralistic cooperators, the latter keeping the former in check.

How social arrangements help to determine the relative proportions of more versus less pro-social individuals, and how institutions are structured to make use of the moral raw materials at hand at a given time, await more thorough study. But the dynamics of group leadership, cooperation, and shirking should be familiar enough to anyone who’s every worked on group projects and in organizations.

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More from Louis Putterman Ph.D.
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