Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Enforcing norms may be for personal gain, not to maintain social order (at least amongst Santa Barbara undergraduates)

Posted 28 Sep 2012 / 2

PLoS ONE “What Are Punishment and Reputation for?

Once again, a valuable and ingenious experiment over-reaches on the meaning of its finding, and the over-reach bleeds into the popular media. This is a really valuable experiment in that it asks about the scale at which social norms are enforced. It is significant that participants in this experiment maintained a local and self-interested sphere of punishment. Does this settle everything against the “group cooperation theory”? Well, I suppose that depends on what you define as the “group cooperation theory”. In this article, the strawman representing all of “group cooperation theory” rests on the assumption that all norm violations need to be punished equally within a social group. Otherwise, we are led to believe, all cooperation emerges from the individual effects of self-interested punishment ‘scaling up’ to the larger group.

Not surprisingly it turns out that when you take a bunch of college students and get them to play a game in which they can cheat, be cheated, and punish, they show a strong preference for punishing in a manner that protects their self-interest rather than maintaining group equity/justice. But does this tell us that our ancestors punished in this manner? And does it really get at the function of norms at the group level?

The conclusions of this study are based on the cardinal assumption of evolutionary psychology, championed by Cosmides and Tooby: “Our modern skulls house a stone age mind”. You have to believe that the states of mind possessed by undergraduates at a privileged university provide a good approximation of our ancestors’ states of mind. There are a number of reasons to question this assumption. First, it is an assumption built strongly on genetic determinism, because it does not worry at all that the very different environments experienced by modern and ancestral humans might have an impact on their psychological decisions. This is the Achille’s Heel of evolutionary psychology: all must rest within the genes. Without having access to ancient ancestors to hold side-by-side with UC Santa Barbara students, I have to imagine that the social decision-making of these two groups might vary a bit. Maybe this variation is due to genetic differences that have accumulated in recent time (although I am willing to concede that there may have been insufficient time to evolve radical differences), but more likely this variation is due to differences in the developmental environment experienced by these two distant relatives.

A big part of this environment includes norms: we spend a lot of time when we are growing up learning what sorts of behaviors are acceptable and what sorts of behaviors are not. Is it possible that UC Santa Barbara students tend towards being trained in the norm “worry only about your self interest, and let others take care of their own?”. Have you been to this part of California? Have you lived in the United States? If you can answer “yes” to either of these questions, it is probably pretty easy to imagine some of the many environmental norm cues that may have influenced behavior in this experiment. To pretend that the mind is not trained by norms that prescribe how to punish norms is irresponsible.

The other aspect of over-reach on this study is its assumption that the “Social Exchange System” discovered in these students exists in a vacuum. The question of whether group-level adaptation matters for cooperation is really not addressed by this study because it only looks at one element of potential group-level adaptation (universal punishment of norm violations). There are several reasons why I would not expect members of a large society to spend a lot of effort punishing strangers. First, there are too many strangers. Whereas a small tribe might be composed of sufficiently few members that universal punishment might be practical, if you live in a large society you cannot possibly punish all norm violations. So what preserves norms? This study implies it is a kind of ‘enlightened self-interest’ that permeates all interactions, and I do not doubt that this is important: this is the really valuable finding of this study! But is this alone what allows UC Santa Barbara students to maintain an attitude of enlightened self-interest? Not at all: the ability to worry only about the outcomes of one’s own interactions rests on a truly impressive foundation of group-level adaptations: police and other regulatory agents, a court system and the rule of law. Ironically, in this experiment the group-level adaptation is provided by the researchers themselves, who design and enforce the rules of a game with absolute consistency (if only social laws were as perfectly enforced as the procedures of a controlled experiment – can I get some of these researchers to write speeding tickets in my neighborhood?).

So the real question for this experiment is: what results would it produce in a society without governmental systems for punishing norm violation? In a society without significant individualistic norms? Take this same study to a small hunter-gatherer tribe and get the same results and then we can start to talk about relinquishing group-level mechanisms for maintaining cooperation. But even if it does turn out that people living in small-scale societies mostly punish in self-interest, the group-level importance of norms can never completely disappear. Norms are by definition incorporated with relative fidelity across members of a social group. However these norms are maintained (again, here is where this study is instructive, at least within the realm it explored), different norms are likely to have different levels of efficacy at maintaining cooperation. Groups will vary in their success at using norms to prevent a tragedy of the commons.

Sorry to get in one last gripe, but the title of this article is miserable. It only adds to the misconception that this study settles a major issue. This seems to be in vogue in this field, with every microscopic theoretical and empirical finding being reported as the big breakthrough. This braggadocio coexists with major unsolved paradoxes about the origin and maintenance of human cooperation: perhaps we should ramp down the hubris and tap into humility to solve this scientific problem cooperatively. I know a title like “Student volunteers prefer self-interested punishment over social norm maintenance” is less ‘sexy’ (remind me one more time why science has to be sexy?), but it would be more honest. I know, I know: Robert Axelrod did not name his seminal work “How cooperation evolves in a simplistic little computer tournament”, but maybe if he had we would have made more progress since 1981.

A Minor Post, Articles, Behavior, Cooperation, Ethics, Evolutionary Psychology, Group Selection, Human Evolution, Multilevel Selection, Psychological Adaptation, Punishment, Reciprocity, Reputation, Social Networks, Social Norms

2 Comments to "Enforcing norms may be for personal gain, not to maintain social order (at least amongst Santa Barbara undergraduates)"

Minnie 5th October 2012 at 6:43 am

One question only: What is a group adaptation? I can’t find a good definition. Is there any?

Chris Jensen 5th October 2012 at 10:41 am

This is certainly not a term that has a single definition, and notice that you are using a slightly different term: I say “group-level adaptation”, and you say “group adaptation”. Are these different? I am afraid this is not an entirely answerable question: there are no set definitions.

With that said, let me explain what I mean by “group-level adaptation” in this post. Group-level adaptations are emergent properties of groups that are maintained not through each individual pursuing his or her own self interest but by a sufficient number of individuals agreeing to maintain some collective social good. Many social norms are critical to maintaining these group-level adaptations. For instance, the norm “stealing is not honest and honesty is admirable” — when it is followed by a sufficiently large number of people — can produce a group-level adaptation (for instance, a society in which trust and security allow for better economic functioning). It would be in each individual’s self-interest to ignore the norm, stealing whenever possible, but the whole society does better when stealing does not undermine the trust required for a functioning society. It is a classic “tragedy of the commons” situation: if enough stealing goes on, everyone does worse, but individuals can always do a bit better for themselves by stealing (hence we call this a “social dilemma”).

One idea about group-level adaptations is that they are not really group-level adaptations at all. Instead, what is good for the group emerges from individuals pursuing what is good themselves as individuals. This is essentially the argument of this paper, which suggests that norm violation punishment emerges from self-interest rather than group-interest. If this was the only factor at play in the context of this experiment, you might argue that the maintenance of norms is not a “group-level adaptation” but instead just the logical extension of individual adaptation: it is good to punish those who wrong you, and that just happens to make for a more functional society.

But all of us know that individual vigilantism alone is not what maintains social order. Pretending otherwise is dangerous. In the example of stealing, it is certainly true that individuals defend their property and are sometimes willing to physically harm (i.e. punish) those who steal from them. But is this predominantly what prevents stealing in our society? That’s what this paper would lead you to believe, and I think that this is more than a bit crazy. I think that the major reason why people do not steal is that they do not want the reputation of being a thief: this is a classic group-level adaptation, as there is general agreement that we will isolate individuals who violate norms, even if their violations have not hurt us and ‘not doing social business’ with these individuals might cost us something. This is complicated, though, because we may also be protecting our own self interest when we avoid those known to be dishonest.

But there’s an undeniable group-level adaptation that prevents most people from stealing: the law, the police, the courts, and jails. Here we have all agreed to carry the cost of establishing a pretty expensive justice system in order to maintain a greater social good: a society in which stealing, cheating, murder, and other forms of exploitation are dramatically reduced. Does anyone believe that a vigilante society like the one ‘discovered’ in this paper could produce the kind of peace and prosperity that our group-level justice system does? And that is my point: this study is being interpreted out of context. In the context of a society that already requires that we pay into a system that protects us from norm violation, we no longer have to punish all norm violations equally. The establishment of a massive and sometimes frighteningly powerful justice system relieves individuals from addressing anything but violations of their own ‘rights’. I would go so far as to say that a large part of the reason why American myths of rugged individualism persist is because we have such great group-level adaptations that we no longer have to act collectively at a local level (a phenomenon which might also have some social downsides).

But imagine for a second our ancestral state, which this paper claims to have discovered in UC Santa Barbara undergraduates. There are no courts, no police, only your particular social group (loosely labeled, ‘your tribe’). Can social justice and harmony be maintained in that tribe simply by individuals punishing others who wrong them? I am highly skeptical that this is the case, and I do not think that there is any data supporting this idea. Vigilantism may appear in the lab under controlled settings, but in the real world it probably does not work.

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