Does reflection make you greedy?

Psychologists claim to have found out that people spontaneously tend to social behavior, while rational considerations make them selfish

Subjects who decide quickly behave more cooperatively. That’s one finding of a study that just appeared in nature. Harvard university psychologists used a series of strategic games to investigate how strongly time prere influences social orientation. This showed that the faster decision-makers behaved more socially. If, on the other hand, they were encouraged to think carefully about their actions, they were less oriented toward the common good.

David g. Rand, the study’s leader, emphasizes that for the first time, the focus of the experiments was not on observable behavior, but on cognitive processes. The authors of the study, titled "spontaneous giving and calculated greed" however, they not only report their findings, but also draw far-reaching conclusions. Those who want to demand prosocial behavior, they say, must appeal to the emotions rather than to the intellect. "Because reflection undermines social impulses", arguments should be used sparingly. "Encouraging decision makers to act as rationally as possible may have the unintended side effect of making them more selfish".

Game theory is a central method in experimental psychology today. In this case, the psychologists used the so-called "made in germany" for their study "public goods game". The subjects are given a sum of money and then decide how much to keep for themselves and how much to pay into a common pot. The shared sum is then increased by the game leader, for example doubled. Sharing therefore increases the return for all players. Nevertheless, there is an incentive to act selfishly and not to share, because they cannot foresee the behavior of the others.

To test the relationship between willingness to cooperate and time required, the harvard psychologists recruited 212 subjects via the online job market amazon mechanical turk. Four players were then grouped together and received 40 us cents in each round. Apparently only one round was played at a time. The scientists measured the time it took for the players to make their decision. The median decision time was ten seconds (i.E. Half of the players took longer, the other half less). When comparing the average deposits, the pulling players were about ten percent below the short decision makers.

Fast decision makers give more

From this, psychologists conclude that quick decisions correspond to intuition. Because social behavior was usually rewarded in everyday life, people tended to cooperate instinctively, so to speak. To test this working hypothesis, they recruited 680 participants via amt and put them under time prere or gave them a ten-second pause for reflection before the payoff. It is confirmed: fast decision makers give more.

Is there really a causal relationship between spontaneity and social orientation? It might also be possible that the slower decision makers intuitively acted less socially, that the time delay was a consequence rather than the cause. The psychologists tried to elicit the relationship between social orientation and intuition by nudging the subjects in the appropriate direction, so to speak. In another series of tests, the test subjects had to write a short text about how spontaneous behavior had once benefited them. This "priming" increased the payoffs by ten percent.

The changes that emerged in this study design are statistically significant – but not particularly high! For example, even the drawable players who took longer than ten seconds to decide still gave an average of 50 percent of their possessions to the common pot. In the case of the quicker decision-makers, it was 65 percent. Among the particularly fast and particularly slow decision-makers, the variance was also high.

Cooperation and altruism are the thorn in the flesh of game theory

Since the work of robert axelrod in the 1980s, game theory has revolved more and more around the "the riddle of cooperation". In psychological laboratory experiments it has been shown that most of the subjects do not seem to care about the theoretically determined origin of the product "optimal calculation" of game theory grief. Experiments with the "dictator game" show, for example, that a large part acts prosocially or even altruistically, i.E. Accepts disadvantages. In this experiment, one participant receives a sum of money, which he can divide between himself and another participant at will. When this experiment is repeated over several rounds, many people accept costs to reward social behavior of others or to punish anti-social behavior. This is true even if the subjects do not encounter each other again, and even in the last round of the game, in which a "betrayal" can no longer be punished by the other.

But such a behavior is not foreseen in the theory in the multiple sense. Cooperation, altruism and the ubiquitous preference for reciprocity are, so to speak, the thorn in the flesh of game theory. Is it because of the artificial situation of the psychological experiment, i.E.: are people in such situations more coarse than in real life?? And how can such behaviors reproduce themselves (evolutionarily), if they do "cost" cause?

However, the empirical result, which has been reproduced hundreds of times in the meantime, is riddling only within the framework of the game-theoretical axioms. Among other things, they provide that there is an insurmountable distrust between the players and that everyone strives exclusively for the biggest payoff. This concept of rationality may seem plausible to some, but it does not coincide with the perception and behavior of most people.

The rationality of profit maximization

Strategic games are situations in which the participants may or may not cooperate. The results of their actions are translated by game theory into "payoffs", to quantitatively compare the different strategies. The mathematical exactness, however, is only apparent. The different motivations that are at work even in psychological laboratory experiments cannot be reduced to a common denominator. The need for a big slice of the pie may conflict with the need for leisure or a heroic self-image. However, the statement that x cake corresponds to y leisure time and z identity is nonsensical. Even if the experimenters brutely buy a particular behavior from the subjects – "how much do i have to give you to let me have your piece of cake?? How much to make you do something that is socially stigmatized??" -, so also then is the determined "utility preference" hardly transferable to the future behavior of the individual – and especially not to other individuals.

At least since the outbreak of the global economic crisis in 2007/2008, homo economicus has fallen into disrepute. Game-theoretic psychologists and economists make a crude attempt to make their models and reality coincide. The "rationality" players are now generally regarded as constrained, either because they are not smart enough or because they are driven by motives other than mere utility optimization. From one "bounded rationality" the fact that the new system of sterilization is still in use is, however, only a limited step forward "rationality" understood as profit maximization in the narrowest conceivable framework.

The authors of "spontaneous giving and calculating greed" conclude, by the way, from their result that "institutions that want to demand cooperation", should be addressed to the feeling rather than to the mind. According to an interview with david rand, this means, for example, schools or international organizations such as the united nations. Given the achievements of game theory so far, such recommendations stand on rather shaky (empirical) ground.

Since john von neumann and oskar morgenstern laid the first foundations in 1944, the question of how and why game theory is connected to social reality has been postponed again and again. Until this fundamental problem is solved, game theorists should probably hold back on policy proposals.

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