Altruistic Anger

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Fri 14 Feb 2003 - 03:06:44 GMT

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    This is related to human motivation, and motivation is important to which memes get distributed or opposed. More about enforcing social behavior.


    Anger and Punishment Scientists Explain How Getting Mad Can Lead to Good Will

    By Amanda Onion

    Jan. 9 Do unto others as you would have them do unto you and if they don't do the same, punish them.

    New findings suggest it may be time to expand the usual interpretations of altruism. Rather than including just acts of generosity and goodness, the term should also incorporate the concept of altruistic punishment, studies show.

    "The definition of altruism in biology doesn't have anything to do with intentions," explained Samuel Bowles, an economist at the Santa Fe Institute. "It has to do with bearing a burden that is costly to oneself, but that benefits others."

    Not only can punishment be altruistic, the new study demonstrates it's also critical for maintaining a healthy society.

    "Most people think when you punish someone, you do it for your own benefit," said David Sloan Wilson, a psychobiologist at the State University of New York in Binghamton and author of the book Unto Others.
    "But if the punishment helps the public, it's not selfish, but selfless."

    Punishment Game

    To prove that people are willing to undergo personal cost to punish others, Ernst Fehr of the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Zurich and colleagues devised a financial game in which students were given 20 monetary units (about $23.95) and then told to either contribute their resources to a communal pot, or keep the money at a cost to the group.

    The more people gave to the communal pot, the more each member of the group reaped once the game was done. But if people refused to donate, the group earned much less.

    Then Fehr added a twist. Players were given the option of punishing those who refused to donate to the pot. Each time a player issued a punishment against another, the punished player was deprived of three monetary units and the punisher was deprived of one.

    Even though the punisher never played with the same people twice and so could not hope to benefit later more than 80 percent of the students opted to sacrifice one of their own units to punish stingy players.

    The punishment worked: Those punished contributed more money in later games. And the series of games that included the option to punish ended up earning group members much more money than those who had no punishment option.

    Altruistic Punishment at Work, in War

    Evidence of altruistic punishment is also pervasive in the real world, says Fehr, including among work groups.

    "Free-riders who pretend to be ill although they could in fact work are typically informally sanctioned by the other members of the work team," said Fehr, who published the results of his study in this week's issue of the journal Nature.

    The current war against terrorism can also be explained, at least partly, by altruistic punishment.

    Dustin Hammond of Park Forest, Ill., for example, recently decided to meet with Air Force recruiters in the months following the Sept. 11 attacks. Even though the chances are slim that terrorists might attack his small hometown or that of his family members, Hammond was driven to risk his life to take part in the military efforts against terrorism.

    "I'd like to serve my country. That tragedy really aggravated me," he told the Chicago Tribune.

    Most might find it easy to understand Hammond's motivations. But it's the kind of behavior that has flummoxed biologists for decades.

    "It's always been a puzzle," said Wilson. "Why would a person decrease their own fitness for the fitness of others?"

    Selfless Anger

    Some theories have suggested there can be selfish motivations for altruistic acts. Sacrificing for family, for example, can still advance an altruist's genes since family members share gene lines. Another theory, known as reciprocal altruism or "tit for tat," suggests that people help others because they expect to receive help in return.

    Neither of those explanations can explain why players elected to punish others in the Fehr experiment.

    Instead, the Fehr study and others show that the presence of altruists in a group increases the overall fitness of the group no matter the consequence to the individual so altruistic acts can make evolutionary sense.

    And, unlike most altruism, altruistic punishment is inspired less by good will than by a factor that biologists have so far rarely considered: anger.

    "Not everyone is public-spirited you might or might not be motivated to help a group," said Wilson. "But when you see a cheater, you get mad. And anger is what recruits this separate group of altruistic punishers."


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