Category Archives: reciprocity

No foreclosure from gift debt

Flickr/martingommel

Thomas Meaney, recently reviewed David Graeber’s DEBT: The First 5,000 Years for the NYT Book Review.  [Graeber helped inspire the Occupy Wallstreet movement.]

Meaney writes:

In 1925 the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss published his classic essay “The Gift,” which argued that contrary to the textbook account of primitive man merrily trading beaver pelts for wampum, no society was ever based on barter. The dominant practice for thousands of years was instead voluntary gift-giving, which created a binding sense of obligation between potentially hostile groups. To give a gift was not an act based on calculation, but on the refusal to calculate. In the societies Mauss studied most closely — the Maori of New Zealand, the Haida of the Pacific Northwest — people rejected the principles of economic self-interest in favor of arrangements where everyone was perpetually indebted to someone else.

Picking up where Mauss left off, Graeber argues that once-prevalent relationships based on an incalculable sense of duty deteriorated as buying and selling became the basis of society and as money, previously a marker of favors owed, became valuable in its own right….

So what, then, is to be done? Graeber finds reasons for hope in some unexpected places: corporations where elite management teams often operate more communistically than communes; in the possibility of a Babylonian-style Jubilee for Third World nations and students saddled with government loans; and from his own study of the Malagasy people of Madagascar, who he claims were adept at evading the snares of consumer debt encouraged by the state. But there is a sizable gulf between Graeber’s anthropological insights and his utopian political prescriptions. “Debt” ends with a paean to the “non-industrious poor.” “Insofar as the time they are taking off from work is being spent . . . enjoying and caring for those they love,” Graeber writes, they are the “pioneers of a new economic order that would not share our current one’s penchant for self-destruction.”

It’s an old dream among anthropologists — one that goes back to Rousseau. In 1968, Graeber’s own teacher, Marshall Sahlins, wrote an essay, “The Original Affluent Society,” which maintained that the hunters and gatherers of the Paleolithic period rejected the “Neolithic Great Leap Forward” because they correctly saw that the advancements it promised in tool-making and agriculture would reduce their leisure time. Graeber approves. He thinks it’s a mistake when unions ask for higher wages when they should go back to picketing for fewer working hours.

Michael from the Front Porch Forum (FPF) in Burlington, VT writes in response to Meaney’s quote that he loves that others in his FPF community in Burlington have undertaken a voluntary life of ‘favor debt’ (owing someone a favor) in place of monetary debt:

“Perpetually indebted to someone else”… this sums up so much of what I love about my community life in Burlington, VT right now….

I was raised to value making my contribution to others while taking great pains to avoid accepting the same from others.  So were lots of folks here.  But that’s a recipe for setting yourself apart, for isolation.  As my family has learned to accept favors from those around us, it’s made our contributions to others that much more meaningful and personal.

Now, through Front Porch Forum, MealTrain, our church, school, neighborhood and other means, we ask and offer favors daily from hundreds of friends, neighbors and acquaintances.  Each request works against isolation and lays down another thread in the web of community that supports our life.  This is a crucial asset… as much as our house, my job, the kids’ college savings.

My brother and his family are planning a holiday visit to see us in Vermont this month.  We could all jam into our house, but I know they would sleep better if we had more space for the two families.  Hotels are expensive and distant… B&Bs too.  So, I put the word out to neighbors and got several offers of empty houses that we could use on our block.  These neighbors are traveling out of state and are glad to share their home while they’re away.  We’ve done this a dozen times over the past few years… offering or asking for empty-house guest lodging.  Make that hundreds of times if we include other favors… meals, rides, tools, advice, kids stuff, labor, baby/pet sitting, on and on.

This is incredibly generous and trusting of all involved… but it’s also keeping each of us “perpetually indebted to our neighbors” in a way that makes our community stronger with each exchange.

It’s a wonderful description of generalized reciprocity of the sort that undergirds social capital as discussed in Bowling Alone.

See somewhat related earlier post “Economists ignore a critical third of economy: the social economy

Hat tip to Lew Feldstein for spotting the FPF post.

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You in? (UPDATED 4/12/12)

Flickr photo by Timothy Hamilton

Yahoo is trying to spark random acts of kindness around the world through the 600 million people who are part of the Yahoo “community.”

They ask people to visit kindness.yahoo.com and post online status messages describing their good deeds, inspiring others to reciprocate and amplify their actions.

They call their effort “You In?” since they encourage those doing good deeds to add this to the end of their posts.  For example, “I just dropped off a coat from my closet at a homeless shelter, You In?” or “I paid the toll fee for the car behind me, You In?” The messages appear in that poster’s Yahoo! status and can be shared via social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace. Visitors can also see an interactive global map on the campaign’s website at kindness.yahoo.com.

Given that the effort encourages altruism, it is ironic that Yahoo! seeded the program by giving $100 to early participants.

The program builds on the “Pay It Forward” concept (serial reciprocity); and there was already an on-line version of Pay it Forward developed called The Giving Game.

Nick Christakis and James Fowler in their book Connected have an interesting experiment to test altruism and the “pay it forward” concept.  But for example, in an experiment they conducted of “paying it forward”, 120 individuals who didn’t know each other were paired off for five rounds of cooperation games involving groups of 4 people each. They never encountered the same individuals.  Individuals could decide how how much to share of an initial pile of money and then all groups were told what others had done, the individuals were reshuffled into new groups 4 more times and this process was repeated.  They found that for every extra dollar that a person (call him/her A) gave in round one to members of A’s group (call them B), those Bs gave twenty cents more in round 2 to their new groups (we’ll call these individuals C).  Then the C individuals each gave five cents more in round three.  This was true even though it was not reciprocity since B’s generosity was to new strangers as was C’s, since the groups were reshuffled.  Since each B individual and C joined three new individuals in the next round, there was a multiplicative impact of A’s generosity of $1.00 to generate an additional $1.05 of generosity in future rounds.  Here the multiplier was restrained by the survey design that had groups of 4, but in principle it is possible that a higher multiplier might be found depending on the group size.

Notable Acts of Kindness under the Yahoo! effort:

– “I traded in a $100 bill for 100 one-dollar bills and wrote a note on each that read: ‘Please take this dollar bill, add one dollar bill, and pass it on.’”

– “I helped an 85-year-old neighbor bring her Xmas decorations down from the rafters — all 12 boxes!”

– “I helped an elderly lady carry her groceries to her car.”

– “I am baking Christmas cakes to share with friends in need of help.”

– “I dropped off supplies at the local Humane Society and at the local women’s shelter.”

Wired to cooperate?

An interesting article in the Science Times section of the NY Times discusses research by developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello (appearing in Why We Cooperate).

At 18 months of age, Tomasello finds that toddlers almost universally immediately help out an adult who needs assistance because his/her arms are full.  What Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, doesn’t know if altruism is innate; 18 months is typically an age before toddlers are taught how to behave.

Not so fast.  As the Times points out: “It’s probably safe to assume that they haven’t been explicitly and directly taught to do this,” said Elizabeth Spelke, a developmental psychologist at Harvard. “On the other hand, they’ve had lots of opportunities to experience acts of helping by others. I think the jury is out on the innateness question.”

But Tomasello observes these same helping behaviors across cultures, despite the fact that they teach social behavior on different schedules and may have different beliefs about appropriate social rules.  Moreover, the helping that infants observe is not enhanced by rewards, causing Tomasello to doubt that it has been strongly reinforced.

In some cases Tomasello observes helping behavior with regard to information in infants 12 months old, and even chimpanzees under certain conditions exhibit helping behavior at a young age.

More specifically related to “social capital”, Tomasello finds that age 3, children become less indiscriminately helpful and are more likely to reciprocate earlier helpful behavior from another person.  In addition, they start to develop social norms, like the reciprocity at the heart of social capital.  Parents can help foster these norms through “inductive parenting”, helping children to learn the consequences of their actions.

As the Times points out:  “The basic sociability of human nature does not mean, of course, that people are nice to each other all the time. Social structure requires that things be done to maintain it, some of which involve negative attitudes toward others. The instinct for enforcing norms is powerful, as is the instinct for fairness. Experiments have shown that people will reject unfair distributions of money even it means they receive nothing.” [See discussion of dictator games and ultimatum games in this blog post.]

Read the very interesting article “We May Be Born With An Urge To Help” (NYT, Nicholas Wade, 12/1/09) about how humans try to sort out whether to behave selfishly or altruistically.

The moral roots of liberals and conservatives

Jonathan Haidt has an interesting talk on TED on where differences from liberals and conservatives originate from.

He notes that “being open to new experiences” is a key predictor of these divisions.  Liberals crave novelty, new ideas, travel. Conservatives like dependability, routine, order and are low on openness to new experiences.  (This was captured by Robert McCrae in “The Social consequences of Experiential Openness”, 1996).

He notes that we are trapped in our own way of thinking, much like The Matrix, such that when liberals “lose” the 2000 election they think that all the Red States must form a country called *Dumb@$#$istan*.

In any effort to help liberals and conservatives see the world from the other’s perspective he notes that nature provides an initial draft for our mind which experience then revises (Gary Marcus, 2004).  He shows fascinating graphs from 23,000 people who indicated their ideology and answered some questions on THe Morality Foundations Questionnaire at www.yourmorals.org concerning their beliefs.  He categorizes individuals along 5 fundamental moral dimensions, the first three of which are heavily entwined with social capital.  He says the 5 core dimensions for the moral mind (abstracting from anthropology, neurology, psychology, etc.) are:

1. Harm/care – as a species care a lot about others

2. Fairness/reciprocity

3. In group/out group – only among humans are there large groups that are united together for common purposes, and as a species we self-consciously produce or reinforce tribes (for wars, sports team loyalty, etc.)

4. Authority/respect – often based out of love

5. Purity/sanctity (either with regard to things like sex, or the foods we put in our body)

What’s fascinating is that if you chart individuals across parts of the world you find that in all societies, conservatives treat all these five factors as moderately important; liberals however focus almost exclusively on the harm/caring or fairness/reciprocity principles. In most societies, the increase in attention given by Conservatives to factors like Respect, Authority, Order, Purity rises much more sharply than the attention to Caring and Reciprocity falls. Haidt describes conservatives as having a 5-channel moral equalizer.

Haidt notes that Liberals speak for weak and oppressed; they want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos. Conservatives speak for institutions and traditions; they want order even at cost to those at the bottom. Haidt thinks Edmund Burke had it right when he said in the wake of the French Revolution: “the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.”

He notes that liberals take for granted that order will always be there, but describes an interesting experiment by Fehr and Gachter written up in Nature in 2002. People in the experiment played a game in which they could cooperate or defect and like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the pot grew larger through collaboration. At the end of the game, the pot was split equally among the players. Although all shared in the gains of the group, an individual could often make out more on any given turn by not cooperating. When they played the game with no forms of punishment allowed (a liberal’s paradise), cooperation started at a moderate level and declined each round. Cooperators got angry at others’ defections and decided to reciprocate, creating a race to the bottom. Starting in the 7th round, the experimenters allowed the participants to punish through the remainder of the game. Cooperation rates immediately jumped to 70% and then increased in every following round.  The authors talk about how altruistic punishment is essential to cooperation.

Haidt says our most remarkable wonder of the world is not the Grand Canyon (erosion writ large) but our ability to cooperate and live together in hostile environments (the Alaska tundra or the Arizona desert) and in big cities. He notes that this takes full use of all of our moral toolkit and requires sub-groups, organizational tools, moral incentives to rise to our best and say no our worst voices (in which Haidt thinks religion plays a key role).

In our Saguaro Seminar, participant Liz Lerman asked “why aren’t our minds large enough to encompass “both-and” rather than “either-or.”  Haidt sings a similar tune when he notices how many Eastern Religions realize that both halves are essential: like Ying/Yang or Vishnu the preserve and Shiva the destroyer working together; or a quote from a Buddhist leader “The struggle between ‘for’ and ‘against’ is the mind’s worst disease.  Haidt notes that our Righteous Minds were ‘designed” by evolution to: 1) Unite us in teams; 2) Divide Us against other teams; and 3) Blind us to the truth.  He says we don’t have to adopt moral relativism, but we can’t charge in to a situation saying “I’m right”, “You’re wrong”.  We need to first understand who we are and who they are; what are the reasons why others are doing what they are doing.  This will help us develop moral humility and ultimately be more effective in changing the world into what we want it to be.

Watch Haidt’s TED talk here.

Cheaters (and now diehard punishers) never prosper

As AP reports it “Screaming sports coaches and cutthroat tycoons have it wrong: Nice guys do finish first, a new study suggests.”

The current issue of Nature summarizes the results of a Harvard study with 100 college students from Boston playing prisoner’s dilemma game.
The AP reported: “Common game theory has held that punishment makes two equals cooperate. But when people compete in repeated games, punishment fails to deliver, said study author Martin Nowak. He is director of the evolutionary dynamics lab at Harvard where the study was conducted….”On the individual level, we find that those who use punishments are the losers,” Nowak said his experiments found.” And those who punished the most, did the worst.

Nowak and all found that none of the top 5 finishers used costly punishment and the use of costly punishment didn’t help groups overall. Effective players used a *tit for tat* strategy, much as Axelrod found earlier. Punishment may force others to do what you want, but researchers found that the situation could rapidly deteriorate.

See article on their story “It Pays to be Nice.”

And a related article in Nature called *Punisher Pays* by M. Milinski and B. Rockenbach. Abstract: The tendency of humans to punish perceived free-loaders, even at a cost to themselves, is an evolutionary puzzle: punishers perish, and those who benefit the most are those who have never punished at all.
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Journal Nature

Play prisoner’s dilemma (without Nowak’s costly punishment) against a computer.