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?”
Coming soon: something unusual, on TLP.