“The Evolution of Fairness” — New Study Generates Media Attention

In the March 19, 2010 issue of Science, a group of anthropologists, economists and psychologists published a study titled “Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment.”  If the title is any indication, this study covers some large topics with many potential variables.

The study has already garnered much attention.  The New York Times has reported on the study (“Moral Lessons, Down Aisle 9“), as has Wired Science (“Evolution of Fairness Driven by Culture, Not Genes“), and Science News (“Farming’s Rise Cultivated Fair Deals“).  The Science study presents some unique opportunities, the first of which is to assess the nature and quality of science reporting.  It also allows for a close examination of a major study which I suspect has some methodological problems leading to questionable conclusions.

In this post, I will briefly examine the three articles which cover the story.  In tomorrow’s post, I will cover the original Science study.  The differences should be interesting.

Here is how the the Times describes the hypothesis and experiment:

Some evolutionary psychologists have suggested that we have an innate sense of fairness left over from our days of living in small clans. But there’s more to it than just inherited instinct, says Joseph Henrich of the University of British Columbia, who led the study’s team of anthropologists, psychologists and economists. They found wide cultural variations by observing more than 2,000 people in 15 small communities participate in a two-player game, called Dictator, with a prize equal to the local pay for a day’s work.

One player, the dictator, was given the authority to keep the entire prize or share part of it with the other, unseen player, whose identity remained secret. Along with this power came the assurance that the dictator’s identity would also remain secret, so that no one except the researcher would ever know how selfish the dictator had been. The most lucrative option, of course, was to keep the whole prize and stiff the anonymous partner.

The researchers found that people in larger-scale societies were generally more willing to share (and more willing to punish the selfish) than people in smaller-scale societies.

This result is the opposite of what ethnographers and historians would have expected.  Small-scale societies are well-known for their sharing and gift-giving, and selfishness is discouraged and punished.

What supposedly accounts for the “greater” fairness in the larger societies?  The authors identify two factors: (1) belonging to a “world” religion; and (2) the community’s level of “market integration,” which was measured by the percentage of the diet that was purchased.

The Wired Science report has a sensational headline which claims that fairness was driven by culture rather than genes:

Human behaviors are often explained as hard-wired evolutionary leftovers of life on the savannah or during the Stone Age. But a study of one very modern behavior, fairness toward total strangers one will never meet again, suggests it evolved recently, and is rooted in culture rather than biology.

In a series of three behavioral tests given to 2,100 people in societies around the world, an innate sense of fairness dovetailed with participation in markets and major religions. Generally speaking, these use social norms and informal institutions to promote fairness, which allow societies to become larger and more complex.

And this is what Science News says about the study:

Going from a fully subsistence-based society with a local religion to a fully market-based society grounded in Christianity or Islam led to increases in amounts offered by players of about 23 percent in the first game, 20 percent in the second game and 11 percent in the third game.

[These results do not] bode well for evolutionary psychologists who argue that people in small Stone Age groups evolved brain circuits for kin favoritism, tit-for-tat exchanges and protecting one’s own reputation.  “This new study powerfully challenges the view in evolutionary psychology that cultural inventions during the last 10,000 years are irrelevant to human cooperation,” remarks economist Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich.

Some problems are immediately evident, beginning with the statement that evolutionary psychologists think that culture has no impact on behavior.  I am familiar with the literature in evolutionary psychology and am not aware of anyone who makes this claim.

The more fundamental problem appears to be the use of money and economic games to assess a person’s fairness under market conditions.  Small-scale societies do not typically use money or participate in markets.  What is “fair” in the context of a small-scale society is, I suspect, quite different from what is “fair” in large-scale society.

I have a feeling that this study compares apples and oranges, and has design flaws which lead to comforting conclusions for those cherish (or worship) free markets and world religions.  More on that tomorrow…

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