As it turns out, yes.
The good news is that we are intuitively altruistic. This doesn’t necessarily mean we are born that way. This is probably learned behaviour that co-evolves with that of those around us. The hypothesis on which this research is based (with good grounding) is that we learn through repeated interactions to behave kindly to others. At least, by far the majority of us. A few jerks (as the researchers discovered) are not intuitively generous and everyone behaves selfishly or unkindly sometimes. This is mainly because there are such jerks around, though sometimes because the perceived rewards for being a jerk might outweigh the benefits. Indeed, in almost all moral decisions, we tend to weigh benefits against harm, and it is virtually impossible to do anything at all without at least some harm being caused in some way, so the nicest of us are jerks to at least some people. It might upset the person who gave you a beautiful scarf that you wrecked it while saving a drowning child, for instance. Donating to a charity might reduce the motivation of governments to intervene in humaniarian crises. Letting a car in front of you to change lanes in front of you slows everyone in the queue behind you. Very many acts of kindness have costs to others. But, on the whole, we tend towards kindness, if only as an attitude. There is plentiful empirical evidence that this is true, some of which is referred to in the article. The researchers sought an explanation at a systemic, evolutionary level.
The researchers developed a simulation of a Prisoners’ Dilemma scenario. Traditional variants on the game make use of rational agents that weigh up defection and cooperation over time in deciding whether or not to defect, using a variety of different rules (the most effective of which is usually the simplest ‘tit-for-tat’). Their twist was to allow agents to behave ‘intuitively’ under some circumstances. Some agents were intuitively selfish, some not. In predominantly multiple round games, “the winning agents defaulted to cooperating but deliberated if the price was right and switched to betrayal if they found they were in a one-shot game.” In predominantly one-shot games – not the norm in human societies – the always-cooperative agents died out completely. Selfish agents that deliberated did not do well in any scenario. As ever, ubiquitous selfish behaviour in a many-round game means that everyone loses, especially the selfish players. So, wary cooperation is a winning strategy when most other people are kind, and it benefits everyone so it is a winning strategy for societies and favoured by evolution. The explanation, they suggest is that:
“when your default is to betray, the benefits of deliberating—seeing a chance to cooperate—are uncertain, depending on what your partner does. With each partner questioning the other, and each partner factoring in the partner’s questioning of oneself, the suspicion compounds until there’s zero perceived benefit to deliberating. If your default is to cooperate, however, the benefits of deliberating—occasionally acting selfishly—accrue no matter what your partner does, and therefore deliberation makes more sense.“
This accords with our natural inclinations. As Rand, one of the researchers, puts it: “It feels good to be nice—unless the other person is a jerk. And then it feels good to be mean.” If there are no rewards for being a jerk under any circumstances, or the rewards for being kind are greater, then perhaps we can all learn to be a bit nicer.
The really good news is that, because such behaviour is learned, selfish behaviour can be modified and intuitive responses can change. In experiments, the researchers have demonstrated that this can occur within less than half an hour, albeit in a very limited and artificial single context. The researchers suggest that, in situations that reward back-stabbing and ladder-climbing (the norm in corporate culture), all it should take is a little top-down intervention such as bonuses and recognition for helpful behaviour in order to set a cultural change in motion that will ultimately become self-sustaining. I’m not totally convinced by that – extrinsic reward does not make lessons stick and the learning is lost the moment the reward is taken away. However, because cooperation is inherently better for everyone than selfishness, perhaps those that are driven by such things might realize that those extrinsic rewards they crave are far better achieved through altruism than through selfishness as long as most people are acting that way most of the time, and this might be a way to help create such a culture. Getting rid of divisive and counter-productive extrinsic motivation, such as performance-related pay, might be a better (or at least complementary) long-term approach.
Address of the bookmark: http://nautil.us/issue/37/currents/selfishness-is-learned