Why Athens Burns: Waiting For The Germans To Put It Out

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I found a story in The Economist about how experiments in psychology may be flawed because of their overreliance on white college students, usually Americans; and it described an experiment repeated in different cultures, finding very different results.

Thing is, I already knew that psychology experiments are catastrophically flawed to the point of uselessness– which is why every generation ends up repeating them from scratch with no real building upon prior knowledge and no truly actionable information. In other words, exactly like parenting and nothing like chemistry.

But one of the experiments described made me curious. So I read it.

The graph is easy to understand: a game of cooperation, where subjects  contribute “tokens” to a group project.  Of course, any tokens you didn’t contribute you got to keep for yourself! (Greedy bastard.)  The trick is that other subjects get to spend tokens– out of their own stash– to punish you (you lose 3x tokens) as they see fit.  What would you do?  Punish freeloaders and reward high contributors?  Oh, Germanic females, you have such good hearts.  Too bad you don’t run Europe.  Oh, wait, you do.  Now I’m confused.

The graph shows mean punishments– how much subjects were willing to pay to slap you down.  So (left green side) most people spend about the same punishing freeloaders.  Everyone hates greedy bastards and freeloaders (except Greeks.)

The part that should terrify you as a human and make you rethink your entire worldview if you are an evolutionary psychologist is the right side.  Different cultures punished high contributors more.  There are multiple explanations for that, all of which are the same one: spite.

The authors suggest this antisocial punishment is based on “revenge,” because “we find a highly significant increase in antisocial punishment across all participant pools as a function of the amount of punishment received in the previous period.”  Revenge makes sense if you feel you were wronged; but it isn’t clear that the greedy bastards punishing the high contributors felt wronged– why would they have felt wronged?  But did they feel a pang of resentment– did they feel there was a certain normal level of contribution that should be respected– one that doesn’t make me feel bad?

Here’s a sad graph, it is the graph of how much each culture contributed over the 10 iterations of the game.  Remember: what they don’t contribute, they keep.


Note that the existence of punishment made some cultures contribute more and other cultures did not change their behavior at all.  Do you what insensitivity to punishment is called?  Psychopathy.  Key point is not that I am suggesting e.g. Greeks are psychopaths, but rather that the collective psychology of a culture– the force vectors summed point in a certain direction, in describable ways: narcissistic, psychopathic, altruistic, etc.

This graph also made me chuckle because 70% of the donations to my blog come from Denmark, The Netherlands, and Germany, which I recognize is anecdotal but wooden shoes and windmills, here I come. Guess I have to switch to beer.

I am not going to speculate as to why X behave this way and the others a different way, only to say that these results are most likely specific to that generation at this time in history.  +/- 20 years and the whole thing could be upside down.  People are a product of their culture, which is more precisely worded: people are a product of the generation’s culture that came right before; which is even better expressed: everything my Dad said is stupid.

The study does reveal one constant of human nature, worth the guilt that I hope it induces in your guilt-free conscience.  The experiments were first run without a punishment option– ten cycles of “how much do you want to contribute out of your own stash for the benefit of the community?”


utopia fails because humans are terrible


Coming soon: something unusual, on TLP.



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18 Responses to Why Athens Burns: Waiting For The Germans To Put It Out

  1. max says:

    People are a product of their culture, which is more precisely worded: people are a product of the generation’s culture that came right before; which is even better expressed: everything my Dad said is stupid.

    I’d like to see this data matched with some data about the control the participants believe they have over their economic future. In some of these cultures, merely the fact that somebody is contributing greatly means they have an ulterior motive.

  2. vaniver says:

    Whoa whoa whoa. Look at Athens in the second graph. They start out at 8 but then are stable at 6, whereas most of the other groups have steady declines (Muscat is another roughly stable group).

    (The declining contributions make sense on multiple levels. One is that the participants are growing disillusioned with each other due to the reduced contributions; another is that they see those contributions as buying future cooperation from other participants. If they know that the game will stop after 10 rounds, why contribute anything on the last round? A related experiment is to do this with a random stop time, and see if that affects the downward slope. If Athens looks the same in both graphs, but the rest level out more… then everyone else was planning ahead.)

  3. Guy Fox says:

    Okay, so whatever you do is basically spiting neighbours as proxies for your dad, and dads are uncreative Guys, who on average are copying what their peers are doing/saying. Sum the vectors of a given population of dads, reverse the sign, and you’ve got the tendency for the next generation.

    The question then becomes the clustering across cultures. It’s pretty easy to see why last-generation-dads in Riyadh, Istanbul, and Muscat would be similar to each other and different from last-generation-dads in Copenhagen, St. Gallen, and Zürich, who are also similar to each other. But how in tarnation do Seoul and Chengdu wind up with the Teutons? Sure, there are lots of Catholics in S. Korea, but not in China. And why would they have been synced up temporally? (I guess to figure that out, you’d have to look at a range of different norms/values and track them over time.)

    I also wonder how fast the oscillations go and how sharp they are. Is it a smooth, gradual transition from one batch of dadish wisdom to the next, like days getting cyclically longer and shorter through the seasons, or is more of a digital change with long bouts of stable dadisms punctuated by short transitions.

    Cheap way of testing it: track the width of neckties through the last few generations. (Joking, but might actually work.)

  4. Minerva says:


    The Greeks have a saying. “Do good and forget about it.” But nobody really does that. Instead, they remember exactly who “does good” in return or, at least, is properly grateful about it. They also like to know the good arrived and did not end up in someone’s pocket.

    So naturally they are not in a hurry to put out the Athens fire, because long ago they found out that nothing they give actually arrives to the city, instead it goes to a politician’s Swiss bank account.

    Besides, Germans are NOT bailing out Greeks but their own banks, who invested a great deal of money in Greek debt, even though they had something called “risk department” who should have known better.

    Greek economy is entirely depended on their ship fleet. (Not tourism as many think, please don’t make me laugh.) When world economy crashed in 2008 and rents for commercial ships nearly dropped to zero it was only a matter time until someone got nervous and started making phone calls.
    (Ironically, Germans forget they were once driven into hyperinflation, because the British and French demanded immediate war debt payments while taking away their means of making a living.)

    But yes, that’s how it is. Germans start out a lot more indiscriminately generous than Greeks do. In time they become less so, as they start feeling used.

    The trick is to be more discriminate to begin with and quickly eliminate those who are not worthy of that generosity. Redirect the extra on those who do. Like your immediate family. That’s the Greek way. That’s what the rest of humanity eventually does.

    If humans seem to become less generous in time it’s because they found out it doesn’t pay.

    • ExOttoyuhr says:

      Cultural cohesion is the missing element in this. “Asabiyya black holes” — regions of very low cohesion — characteristically exist in the historic centers of imploded imperial peoples or states; Greece is one of the textbook examples, and others are the Two Sicilies (better known as the Roman Empire), Lotharingia, and Boston.

      Is it possible to be an empire and not eventually implode? I think so, in theory. It’s certainly possible to be an aristocrat-tribal society and never run out of cohesion: what the author of that link isn’t telling you is that aristocrat-tribal societies, especially peoples like the Swiss and Scots, are perfectly viable competitors with modern nation-states, without going through the Rube Goldberg historical process that he claims is necessary. (My suspicion is that historyexplained.com is a stealth apologia for the Soviet Union. This suspicion is borne up by the other activities in which the author is engaged.)

      And the Germans’ experiences of high inflation and general poverty were not because they were allowing public servants to retire at 50 with full salaries; they came from being mugged — twice, the time everyone hears of (Versailles) and the time everyone has undertaken not to know about (the Morgenthau Plan). Admittedly, in the second case Germany had been the aggressor — but Wilson himself would’ve agreed that war to overthrow the Peace of Versailles was justified. (Not that justifies the Holocaust, of course.)

      • Gabe Ruth says:

        historyexplained.com is certainly not an apologia for the USSR. It’s probably Steven Pinker’s dog, or maybe Tyler Cowen’s. How’d you find it?

        • ExOttoyuhr says:

          (Many months later:) Through atomicrocket.com’s discussion of social structures, especially aristocrat-tribal societies and how that pattern explained the Klingons. (It also turns out to explain the astonishing longevity and social stability of the Kurds and Basques.)

          But the whole thing, apart from the discussion of aristocrat-tribal societies, struck me as a setup to which “the Russian Revolution was justified by the March of History after all” was the punchline. Seeing that most of Maurer’s other writings are studies of or apologias for the Communists did not exactly inspire doubts as to my initial appraisal.

          I’ll also note that on the message boards on historyexplained.com, he more or less approved of the genocides of the Scottish Highlanders and other aristocrat-tribal societies, because they were on the wrong side of the development of history. The messageboard wasn’t adequately archived by web.archive.org when he took down historyexplained.com, but I hope you’ll take my word for it; seeing someone even toying with the idea of supporting Butcher Cumberland was like a blow to the gut.

          He tried to direct conversation away from aristocrat-tribal societies, seeing them as a distraction from the proper evolution of societies — from tyranny at the beginning, to inefficient, jury-rigged imitations of aristocrat-tribal societies at the end. The modern fortunes of the Scots (even the Lowlanders are aristocrat-tribal; look at Scottish law on suicide) and the Kurds demonstrate that this long and painful trajectory is unnecessary.

        • ExOttoyuhr says:

          Update: I found one conversation which the Internet Archive preserved, and gives a sense of Maurer’s views on the Soviet Union — here. He wrote that “it is not right to say that the Soviet Union wanted to invade and conquer any significant part of Europe” — and he wrote this in 2003, eleven years after the publication of The Sword and the Shield (the Mitrokhin Archive), 16 years after the publication of The Icebreaker (Viktor Suvorov).

          • Gabe Ruth says:

            Almost a month later, I have not yet read your link, but I happened across an interesting piece that touched on a previous topic of conversation.

            The original post is just speculation about the real origins of the man who ran Yugoslavia for decades before it imploded, but the comments get into the motives and goals of such a man, if he was other than he claimed to be.

            BTW, my E-mail is gaberuth45 at symbol google’s mail service.

    • Guy Fox says:

      Germans are NOT bailing out Greeks but their own banks, who invested a great deal of money in Greek debt, even though they had something called “risk department” who should have known better.

      The risk department of Deutsche Bank should have known that the pre-crash Greek government had been lying since before the Olympics about Greece’s economic statistics, when even the EU Commission was hoodwinked? And given German (and general European) reliance on German banks, is it not legitimate to keep them afloat, at least until somebody gets some alternative means to allocate scarce capital going? And while we’re digging up history people have hopefully learned from, where’s the Thrasybulus to save you from the 30 tyrants? When is Alcibiades to return?

      Das ist doch nicht dein Ernst, oder?

      • Minerva says:


        I’m perfectly aware that the corruption, lies and the “αύριο, αύριο” mentality played a big role in this mess. This is no big secret and anyone who’s been dealing with the PIIGS (and Turkey) longer than 2 weeks would have known it.

        The German and French banks chose to go ahead and ignore that knowledge. The world economy was booming after all, ship rents were exploding and there was only one way to go…up. Remember, these are the same banks who invested in NINJA loans because the real estate market would never come down. Once everything fell apart they ran to Merkozy and started making noises about the evil Greeks and save us you old goats or you’re coming down with us.

        Some people love to use history as an excuse and a way to shift the blame but this is not the case here. The German hyperinflation episode was mentioned because it’s not the first time West Europe has insisted on getting paid to the destruction of everyone involved.

        Yes, the PIIGS certainly need to get their shit together, no question about that. But there is no way I can ever see those who gave them money as victims – they definitely knew what they were getting into and they are insolent enough to demand a bailout from the tax payers!

        Who is the bigger thief here?

        I will LMAO when D. Bank eventually drops to the single digits.

    • Cambyses says:

      Uparchei Ellinida edo? Now that you mention it, there is something of Versailles to this debacle, but a neoliberal kind of Treaty of Versailles. I mean, the very crux of neoliberal theory is a redistribution of risk to the lower classes, i.e. from Enron executives to their pensioners, or from German bankers to Greek tax payers. The interesting question is how this shifting of risk changes the behavior of bankers, knowing that there will be no reckoning, no pound of flesh if their plans should fail. Geia sas.

      • Minerva says:

        how this shifting of risk changes the behavior of bankers,

        Cue JPM a few weeks ago:
        “Oops, we lost a couple billion dollars in a bad trade.” *Shrug*

        The problem is, nearly every country, that is part of the euro currency, is now in 1930s style deflation territory. Don’t believe me, just look at their stock index charts.

        Think about it. 1930s…when even US Americans were waving red flags in the streets of the Mid-West.

        “There is no choice between being a communist on 1,500 calories a day and a believer in democracy on a thousand.”- Lucius Clay

        Why do you think “they” eventually called off the Morgenthau Plan? Why do you think “they” are freaking out about the coming elections in Greece?

        But history never repeats, right πατριώτη? Personally I don’t even want it to rhyme…

  5. OttomanVampire says:

    Since I have nothing to contribute, I’ll take this chance to be as much as Turkish as possible:

    “lol greece”

  6. Gabe Ruth says:

    Maybe this one was over my head, but I have trouble seeing how this study rebukes evo-psych, or how it provides any support at all for a sinusoidal theory of political culture that is more speculative than most evo-psych flights of fancy. Culture is a little more than realizing your dad wasn’t superman or omniscient.

    “Note that the existence of punishment made some cultures contribute more and other cultures did not change their behavior at all.”

    The whole point of the first graph was to show that in some cultures deviations in either direction were punished. Where is the change in behavior supposed to come from? If anyone did deviate from the average, that would be evidence of sociopathy. Of the cultures that showed a noticeable change in behavior (Seoul, Nottingham, Melbourne, Chengdu, and maybe Zurich) only Seoul seemed to have a problem with excessive public spiritedness, and even then they focused on larger deviations.

    I’m too stupid to get my free registration to work at the site with the study, so can someone tell me what the contributions were supporting? Was it going to a coffee and donut fund, or some hypothetical government? Because I wouldn’t necessarily call it spiteful to object to some do-gooder’s attempts to increase the socially acceptable contribution to a project whose value you consider hypothetically dubious. Also, was each culture given the same number of tokens to start with, and did they carry a similar value within each culture say, in potential meals or rent?

    • Gabe Ruth says:

      And now I see that I am an idiot, at least on the subject of relative psychopathy in Greeks and Russians.

      And I suppose the point about evo-psych is that even if you don’t take all your subjects from a relatively homogenous and historically outlying population, you’re probably not learning much.

  7. spinozasdream says:

    Alone, do you seriously think that the entire field of evolutionary psychology would fall and crumble under the weight of this one single study? It seems like the researchers wanted to explore the impact of nationality on cooperation and they found some interesting results. The paper is a nice contribution to the already respectable behavioral ecology literature, but hardly more. It is certainly not the final, lethal blow to evolutionary psychology that you so deliriously want to see. I am just saying… :)

  8. Namely says:

    I was under the impression that insensitivity to punishment was called “heroism”. However, I am posting this from the Soviet Union in 1948 via an experimental time gate, so perhaps there have been new discoveries.