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The dark side of fair play: Why would evolution let spite stick around?

Date:
March 7, 2014
Source:
Northeastern University
Summary:
We often think of playing fair as an altru­istic behavior. We're sac­ri­ficing our own poten­tial gain to give others what they deserve. What could be more self­less than that? But new research sug­gests another, darker origin behind the kindly act of fairness. An expert in the evolution of spite has investigated possible explanations for fair behavior that hadn't been considered before.

We often think of playing fair as an altru­istic behavior. We're sac­ri­ficing our own poten­tial gain to give others what they deserve. What could be more self­less than that? But new research from North­eastern Uni­ver­sity assis­tant pro­fessor of phi­los­ophy Rory Smead sug­gests another, darker origin behind the kindly act of fairness.

Smead studies spite. It's a conun­drum that evo­lu­tionary biol­o­gists and behav­ioral philoso­phers have been mulling over for decades, and it's still rel­a­tively unclear why the seem­ingly point­less behavior sticks around. Tech­ni­cally speaking, spite is char­ac­ter­ized as paying a cost to harm another. It yields vir­tu­ally no pos­i­tive out­come for the per­pe­trator. So why would evolution -- which is sup­posed to weed out such behaviors -- let spite stick around?

Smead's research, con­ducted in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Patrick Forber of Tufts Uni­ver­sity and recently pub­lished in the journal Pro­ceed­ings of the Royal Society B, sheds new light on this nefar­ious phenomenon.

A common means of studying social behav­iors is through sim­pli­fied models and games. One of these is called the ulti­matum game, in which a one player pro­poses a divi­sion of resources the other player can either accept or reject. Sup­pose each inter­ac­tion con­cerns the dis­tri­b­u­tion of 10 one-​​dollar bills. The first player could sug­gest that he take $5 for him­self and give the remaining $5 to the second player. That would be a fair play.

How­ever, that first player could also go for an unfair option in which he keeps $9 for him­self and gives just $1 to the second player. While the second player is worse off if he rejects the pro­posal (he's got ziltch in his pocket instead of $1), he almost always does so in real-​​world ver­sions of the game: It's just not fair.

But when Smead and his col­leagues decided to sim­u­late this game math­e­mat­i­cally to see how it would play out, they found that in fact the exact oppo­site hap­pens. Fair­ness usu­ally gets flushed out of the system since it's more ben­e­fi­cial for both the first player (the pro­poser) to sug­gest unfair offers and for the second player (the responder) to accept them.

"Evo­lu­tionary models don't match what we're observing in real life," Smead said. Clearly, he thought, there must be some­thing else going on.

In the new study, Smead and Forber con­sid­ered that the ulti­matum game is actu­ally quite unlike the real world. It's an extremely sim­pli­fied sim­u­la­tion of one of infi­nite ways that two indi­vid­uals could act. The researchers couldn't, for obvious rea­sons, make the game as com­plex and nuanced as real world social inter­ac­tions, but they could instead just add a little more nuance to it and see what happened.

So that's what they did. In their new ver­sion of the game, the researchers intro­duced some­thing called "neg­a­tive assort­ment." Think of assort­ment as the like­li­hood that a person you're inter­acting with is sim­ilar to you. In neg­a­tive assort­ment, that like­li­hood is low, so in the ulti­matum game the players would likely use dif­ferent strategies.

Here's where spite comes back into play. If you and I both commit to just making fair offers, but my strategy is to accept all offers -- be they fair or unfair -- and yours is to accept only fair ones, we are dif­ferent. A spiteful strategy would be to both make only unfair offers, but reject such offers when they come from the other person.

In the orig­inal ver­sion of the ulti­matum game, a spiteful player will usu­ally walk away with nothing and for­feit the game. But with neg­a­tive assort­ment, spite becomes common and actu­ally ends up pro­moting fair­ness. "Acting fairly pro­tects you from spite," Smead explained.

Think of it this way. A "gamesman" is someone who only makes unfair offers to ben­efit him­self but accepts what­ever comes his way because he believes it'll all wash out in the end. "Gamesmen become a target for spite because they're making unfair offers," Smead said. The "spiters" will reject those offers, even­tu­ally killing off the gamesmen.

But fair players will now do quite well in the pres­ence of spite. Since they don't make unfair offers, they don't risk being rejected by the spiteful players. Fair­ness actu­ally becomes a strategy for sur­vival in this land of spite.

"Real social life is com­pli­cated," Smead said. While his new ver­sion of the ulti­matum game is still a sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, it illu­mi­nates another pos­sible expla­na­tion for fair behavior that hadn't been con­sid­ered before.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Northeastern University. The original article was written by Angela Herring. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. P. Forber, R. Smead. The evolution of fairness through spite. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2014; 281 (1780): 20132439 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2013.2439

Cite This Page:

Northeastern University. "The dark side of fair play: Why would evolution let spite stick around?." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 March 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140307165949.htm>.
Northeastern University. (2014, March 7). The dark side of fair play: Why would evolution let spite stick around?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 27, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140307165949.htm
Northeastern University. "The dark side of fair play: Why would evolution let spite stick around?." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140307165949.htm (accessed August 27, 2014).

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