Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Unselfish Gene?

Today as I was reading an article by Yochai Benkler on the Harvard Business Review entitled, "The Unselfish Gene" (by way of The Browser) I began to get depressed. Not because, as the article forcefully argues, it turns out our selfishness is not the key to understanding all human behavior. This should be rather uplifting, I suppose. Rather, it was because I found it contained so many pernicious errors in reasoning that I began to wonder how our cultural elite can be so blind.

To begin with, let's summarize the major premise. For years now we've been operating under the assumption that humans are fundamentally driven by the selfish desire to advance one's own interests, the so-called "rational actor theory." Thus we have to determine which personal incentives to use in order to drive people toward good behavior. But now, thanks to modern science, we can successfully say that in general, people actually like to cooperate with one another!

My first critique, which is almost my most overarching critique, can be stated as follows: how can we possibly think we needed modern science to figure this out?

To be more specific, let's look at some of the science which is now being used to "refute" the so-called "rational actor theory":
Take the experiments that Lee Ross and his colleagues conducted with American college students and Israeli fighter pilots. As we know, in prisoner’s dilemma games, the two players will both be better off if they cooperate, but neither can trust the other to do so. Game theory predicts that both players will choose not to cooperate instead of taking the risk of losing out by cooperating. Extensive experimental work, however, has shown that people actually cooperate more than the theory predicts.

Ross and his collaborators told half the players in their experiments that they were playing the Community Game and the other half that they were playing the Wall Street Game. The two groups were identical in all other respects. Yet, in the Community Game group, 70% started out playing cooperatively and continued to do so throughout the experiment. In the Wall Street Game group, the proportions were reversed: 70% of the players didn’t cooperate with one another. Thirty percent started out playing cooperatively but stopped when the others didn’t respond.

This experiment illustrates a couple of points. One, we are not all the same. About 30% of players cooperated even in the Wall Street Game while another 30% acted with self-interested rationality even when told they were in the Community Game. Two, many of us are influenced by context. According to Ross, the framing of the games influenced 40% of the sample. The players who thought they were acting in a context that rewarded self-interest behaved in a manner consistent with that expectation; participants who felt they were in a situation that demanded a prosocial attitude conformed to that scenario. When Ross and his colleagues asked the subjects’ teachers or commanders to predict who would and wouldn’t cooperate, it turned out that the game’s framing forecast behavior better than the teachers and commanders could. It seemed that participants who were seen as self-interested could be induced to cooperate if the games they were playing were reframed.

Let me give several critiques here. First, what kind of cooperation is observed? Is it a hierarchical form? Do we naturally look for leaders, or are we naturally egalitarian? Identifying the appropriate cooperative structure is really the main problem of political economy, so if you're going to critique Adam Smith, you really must deal with this issue. A statement like "70% of people were cooperative" is extremely dull and uninformative.

Second, what are the results of this cooperation? It's one thing to argue that human beings are naturally cooperative; it's quite another to talk about what the overall results of that cooperativeness are. Many of the examples given in the article are great: Wikipedia, open-source software, and self-regulated water access among farmers in Spain, for isntance. But if you're going to critique Adam Smith's treatise on the Wealth of Nations, for instance, you really need to identify what's being studied. Smith was trying to develop a plausible theory of how wealth has increased over the span of human history. Does the human tendency to be cooperative better explain this phenomenon? Don't compare apples and oranges.

Third, the study (or at least this article's interpretation of the study) draws no connections between the human beings involved and the institutions shaping them. How can one study human moral behavior independent of the institutions which guide moral development, do an experiment which shows that many of us tend to be cooperative, and then conclude that behavior is the result of genetics?

But, on the other hand, and this is my fourth point, plenty of people could have already told you that humans are instinctively cooperative. In fact, in The Fatal Conceit, Hayek argues that socialism, not capitalism, is a revolt of instinct against our morals. In particular, he argues, primitive human society was extremely cooperative and would have shunned personal gain apart from the collective.

It is not hard to imagine why this had to be the case. I have never read Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene, but from what I know of its conclusion, it seems somewhat untenable. Human beings are not especially strong, and our intelligence only gives us so much advantage over our surroundings when used on an individual level. It is much more likely for humans to survive in groups. Plenty of animals have thrived in groups, precisely because they would not have survived as individuals. It is hard to imagine that one of the most well-known evolutionary biologists on the planet would not see this. Perhaps the book more carefully explains his point.

Perhaps I shouldn't put Hayek's case so strongly. Our instincts surely contain a mixture of self-preservation and collectivism. We naturally react vengefully if someone tries to harm or threaten us, even if it's someone close. On the other hand, we also all instinctively have a tendency to defend the "home team," whether it's the city or state we've lived in for so many years, or it's literally our favorite sports team, or it's our country, our heritage, our religion, whatever. My guess is that we all instinctively want to fit into some kind of hierarchical structure that keeps us safe from danger; that seems the likely way our species survived in the first place.

In any case, I am basically persuaded by Hayek's argument, that our morals have evolved culturally to put some check on this hierarchical instinct. In particular, our morals tell us, among other things, that despite our instincts, we ought to respect a person's right to have things we don't, and if we expect others to cooperate with us we must offer something which is desirable to them. And these morals, as Smith and many of his successors have argued, have enabled our society to extend its cooperative abilities far beyond the scope of a small tribe.

"The Unselfish Gene" appeared on the Harvard Business Review's web site. Does that mean businessmen have been operating under the assumption that humans are instinctively selfish? If so, I can only marvel at this. It would appear that human beings are, on average, more naturally suited for a kind of working environment which fosters long-term commitment to the group, a sense of identity and belonging. One need only watch a few movies to confirm this. And lest anyone think this was somehow lost on the defenders of capitalism, I hasten to add that Hayek himself made mention of this in one of his works (although I cannot hope to find the reference at the moment). Corporations, he said, if they wish to attract employees, should seek to develop some hierarchical structure that makes people feel that they are part of a whole, that their success is based on some sort of merit, and, I would add, that their employment is reasonably secure so long as they are diligent.

There is thus a large difference between the individual company or corporation and the society as a whole. Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek (and other economists) never meant to indoctrinate us with the mentality that selfishness is the primary motive for human action. How absurd! Rather, their goal was to explain how it was that the whole of human civilization came to be as prosperous as it is, as the very title of Smith's treatise makes plain!

I don't know how to conclude, other than to try to express how exasperating it is that our culture has been so irrationally influenced by ideas commonly associated with "capitalism." In particular, as embarrassing as it can be to realize I keep bringing up Hayek over and over again, I am determined to figure out how to get people to understand him. Considering the value of his contribution to economic and political thought, I just can't get over how often his ideas are misunderstood, distorted, or just plain ignored.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I love to hear feedback!