Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Another reason to think that maybe the world isn't completely going to hell after all

The cynics will tell you that self-interest, competition, "go for the gold and second place is first loser," and "looking out for #1" are the natural state of affairs for human beings. If they're polite about it, they'll say that "reasoned self-interest" in the most "rational" way to live; if they're not, they'll say that "fairness is for suckers."

In fact, 10 years ago I engaged in an online debate with an Ayn Rand devotee who described altruism and egalitarianism as, and this is a quote, "evil ideas" contrary to nature.

They're all wrong. Well, okay, to be precise I have to say they're not right, at least not universally. And that's good enough right now. Reuters tells us that
[p]eople taking part in a game designed to explore egalitarian impulses in human nature consistently robbed from players assigned the most money while giving money to those with the least, scientists said on Wednesday.

James Fowler, a University of California at San Diego political scientist, and his fellow researchers detected what they saw as a "Robin Hood impulse" in people who took part in the experiment, described in the journal Nature. ...

The experiment was carried out last year using 120 paid student volunteers at a computer lab on the campus of the University of California at Davis.

The volunteers sat at computer terminals, and a computer would assign them into groups of four. Once placed into a group, each person was assigned an amount of money and was told how much money the other three members were given.

The players then had the chance to spend some of their own money in order to increase or decrease the amount the others possessed, but their actions provided no financial gain for themselves. ...

About 70 percent of participants at some point reduced or added to another person's money, most often by taking from the richest players or by donating to the poorest players, the study found.

These actions had the collective effect of equalizing income among the players - with participants spending their own money to achieve the goal.

The researchers said even players whose own loot had been pilfered in previous rounds were willing to take steps to redistribute the money in an egalitarian manner.

Fowler acknowledged the experiment might yield different results if conducted in another country or somewhere other than a U.S. college campus, but suggested a certain universal egalitarian yearning might be seen.
Okay, so it's a thin reed - but it's better than drowning.

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