Can humans be altruistic? Or are we all jerks?

I have an old high school friend whose college admissions essay argued that humans are incapable of altruism. It worked; apparently ivy league admissions staff are a cynical bunch.

I think back to my friend’s essay when I hear arguments about human nature. In the last few years I’ve been encouraged by the amount of research suggesting that humans do not, in fact, always act in a way that maximizes their personal welfare. Rather, sometimes we make decisions that seem to act against our best interests but in favor of others, even others that aren’t related to us. Then another doctoral student sent me this today (My take below the quote, for the busy amongst you):

Gene-culture coevolution proponents claim to see overwhelming evidence of group-beneficial, individually costly behaviors in large societies that cannot be explained by (their computationally impoverished models of) reciprocity. For example, many results are interpreted as showing prosocial, other-regarding preferences purportedly inconsistent with individual selection, including a taste for fairness, excess generosity, and a failure to uniformly act with short-run selfishness. These preferences, together with a taste for altruistically punishing fairness norm-violators, are believed to work together to make people sacrifice their individual interests for the benefit of the group – which then helps groups in intergroup competition. However, the supporting experimental findings typically involve constrained choices that conflate hypotheses, rather than test them cleanly. When these defects are removed from experimental designs, supporting results collapse. For example, when subjects have the added choice of taking from others as well as giving, they no longer give in dictator games (List 2007). Young children, purportedly averse to unfair divisions, will choose to pay a cost to reduce the welfare of others when given the chance (Sheskin et al. 2014). In previous experimental designs testing for third-party punishment of unfair dividers, the only choices available were to punish or not. When this demand-characteristic is removed by adding the option of rewarding unfairness, average “altruistic” punishment approaches zero (Pedersen et al. 2013). Where partners can defect on both the subject and third parties, subjects punish those who defect on them personally (Krasnow et al. 2012). Moreover, they only punish those they subsequently choose to interact with, not those who could only harm others. This indicates that punishment is a tool of negotiation, and not primarily designed to altruistically uphold group norms.” (Tooby and Cosmides 2016)

In short, the article pokes holes in the research supporting the idea of altruism: Zoom the studies out just a bit, and people actually do behave as selfishly as misanthropes think.

I’m not ready to let go of altruism yet, though. Here’s my suspicion: If we zoom out even farther, we’ll find that people’s altruism will be bounded by the extent to which they view others as part of one of their own communities, even if that’s just geographic. If I’m right, we’d see people tend toward generosity when dealing with someone from their own small town, their university, etc.–and that the smaller/more tightly knit the community, the easier it is for people to view another member of that community as one of their own. To develop altruism, then, means to constantly expand our definitions of who counts as one of “us.”

What am I missing? What am I wrong about? What should I read next? I’m told I need to learn more about kin selection.

(From 2001: A Space Odyssey)

One Reply to “Can humans be altruistic? Or are we all jerks?”

  1. How do you view the Self? As an individual? Family? Community? Planet? What if both were true – 1) We are not altruistic. We are Selfish. And 2) how we define the Self depends on whether actions we take look altruistic or not. A bigger conception of Self could mean bigger, more “generous” action.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: