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Why a Sense Of Fairness Is Intrinsic to Human Nature
Sharing your intentions with others
The next time you have an opportunity to watch young children playing together, take a few moments to observe how they interact with each other. Before too long, you’ll probably notice one of them pointing or gesturing to some object; holding something up to show it or offer it to another; bringing another child to some location to see something there; and, perhaps you might see one of them intentionally teaching a new game to another.
Developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello has pointed out that these are all behaviors humans naturally do that chimpanzees don’t. He believes that’s because chimps don’t understand others as intentional agents in the way we do. In his view, the major difference between our cognition and that of chimpanzees is that humans identify more deeply with others of our species.
According to Tomasello, it's chimpanzees, not humans, who are obsessed with competing against each other. Tomasello focuses on a uniquely human capability he calls “shared intentionality”: our ability to realize that another person is seeing the same thing we're seeing, but that they're seeing it from a different perspective. This enabled early hominids to work collaboratively on complex tasks and transform their mimetic culture into cognitive communities enabling them to share values and practices.
Coping with free-riders
There’s one major flaw, however, to the theory that cooperation was the major evolutionary driver of human uniqueness: the free-rider problem. What happens to a community when most people are sharing their resources but some are just going along for the ride, taking advantage of the others?
Evolutionary researchers have modeled this problem extensively using game theory, testing real examples in the lab, and have discovered that it takes only a few selfish players to undermine the cooperation of others who trust each other. Some other ingredient, they realized, would have been needed for cooperation to become an evolutionarily successful strategy for early humans. But what?
Imagine you're sitting alone in a room. In the next room is someone else, whom you don't know. You're never going to meet each other. A researcher walks in holding a hundred dollars and tells you that this sum will be split between you and the stranger in the other room. And the good news is, you're allowed to decide exactly how you want to split it. But there's a catch: you can only propose one split. The person in the other room will be told the split and can either accept it or reject it. If he accepts it, the money is shared accordingly. If he rejects it, you'll both get nothing.
Welcome to the ultimatum game. If you're like most people, you'll decide to split the hundred dollars down the middle, so you get $50, the other person will accept his $50, and you'll both be ahead. Researchers view the ultimatum game as convincing evidence that refutes the earlier view of humans as fundamentally self-interested. If that were the case, then you (the proposer) would be more likely to keep, say, $90 and offer $10 to the other stranger (the responder). The responder would accept $10 because, being self-interested, he would be happier with $10 than nothing. But that's not what people do. Responders in fact frequently reject offers below $30, and the most popular amount offered by proposers is $50.
The balance between competition and cooperation
It seems that we humans have a powerfully evolved sense of fairness. So powerful, in fact, that we would rather walk away with nothing than permit someone else to take unfair advantage of us. Researchers call this "altruistic punishment."
These results, and others like them, suggest that over thousands of generations, our social intelligence was molded by cooperative group dynamics to evolve an innate sense of fairness, and a drive to punish those who flagrantly break the rules, even at our own expense. This intrinsic sense of fairness is, in the view of some researchers, the extra ingredient that led to the evolutionary success of our species and created the cognitive foundation for values in our modern world such as freedom, equality and representative government.
It is, however, abundantly clear from any casual perusal of the daily news, not to mention the calamities of history, that cooperation is not the only force driving human affairs. Where, then, does the human drive for power fit in?
Anthropologist Christopher Boehm, who has researched social behavior in both primates and humans, offers a convincing theory that places both our competitive and cooperative drives into a cohesive framework. Our understanding of human nature, Boehm suggests, is only complete when we recognize it as intrinsically ambivalent, with our primate competitive drive and more recent cooperative instinct pushing in opposite directions.
The form of society that emerged with early humans – and predominated for the vast majority of human history – was the nomadic hunter-gatherer band, which is overwhelmingly egalitarian in structure. Boehm has studied how these small bands manage to maintain their egalitarian nature in the face of the more ancient instinct for domination that inevitably prevails in some individuals.
He discovered that, in virtually all hunter-gatherer societies, people join together to prevent powerful men from taking too much control, using collective behaviors such as ridicule, group disobedience, and ultimately extreme sanctions such as assassination. He names this kind of egalitarian society a “reverse dominance hierarchy” because “rather than being dominated, the rank and file itself manages to dominate.”
As long as humans lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers, the social structure that prevailed was distinctly egalitarian. What changed? Why does the history of the past few millennia differ so drastically from a system that had been stable for so long? This change was one of humanity’s great critical transitions and its implications reverberate throughout this book.
Excerpted from The Patterning Instinct, Chapter 1 | How We Became Human
Michael Tomasello, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000)
Ernst Fehr, and Urs Fischbacher, "The Nature of Human Altruism," Nature 425 (2003): 785–91
Christopher Boehm, "Egalitarian Behavior and Reverse Dominance Hierarchy," Current Anthropology 34, no. 3 (1993): 227–54