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New Light On Altruism

April 2008 - Research led by the University of Nottingham published in Science has shed new light on ways in which people are prepared to sacrifice personal advantage for the common good and what happens when "freeloaders" take advantage of their altruism. Researchers explain that understanding decision-making processes behind cooperation is a key element in addressing major contemporary issues such as recycling and climate change.

Using an experimental game format, researchers studied participants from cities in sixteen countries and found that whether freeloaders responded positively or retaliated when "punished" depended on the nature of the society in which they lived. Volunteers were given tokens to either keep or contribute to a common "pot" that would yield extra interest to be shared out equally among all players at the end of the game. Beneficiaries included those who chose not to contribute anything initially.

Researchers found similar levels of cooperation across all sixteen nations. However, significant differences emerged when individual contributions were revealed and participants had the chance to punish others by taking a token away from them. Although this option also cost the punisher, the current study confirmed previous findings that this was acceptable in order to penalise those perceived to have taken advantage.

In some countries (such as the USA, Switzerland and the UK) freeloaders accepted punishment and became significantly more cooperative. However, in countries where more authoritarian and parochial social institutions prevailed (such as Oman, Saudi Arabia, Greece and Russia) freeloaders retaliated in kind - a phenomenon known as antisocial punishment - and cooperation for the common good suffered. Noting that norms relating to the common good are associated with general attitudes to the law (such as tax evasion) researchers concluded that antisocial punishment was more common in societies less familiar with the ethic of cooperation with strangers and where the rule of law was perceived to be weak.

Simon Gaechter, professor of the psychology of economic decision-making at Nottingham University commented:

"To our knowledge this is the largest cross-cultural difference in experimental games that has been carried out in the developed world. Our results correlate with other survey data in particular measures of social norms of civic cooperation and rule of law in these same societies. The findings suggest that in societies where public cooperation is ingrained and people trust their law enforcement institutions, revenge is generally shunned. But in societies where the modern ethic of cooperation with unrelated strangers is less familiar and the rule of law is weak, revenge is more common. There are numerous examples in everyday life of situations where cooperation is the best option but there are incentives to take a free ride, such as recycling, neighbourhood watch, voting, maintaining the local environment, tackling climate change, and so on. We need to understand why people behave in this way because cooperation is very strongly inhibited in the presence of antisocial punishment."

In a commentary in the same edition of Science, Professor Herbert Gintis of the Santa Fe Institute said:

"Antisocial punishment was rare in the most democratic societies and very common otherwise. Using the World Democracy Audit evaluation of countries' performance in political rights, civil liberties, press freedom and corruption, the top six performers among the countries studied were also in the lowest seven for antisocial punishment. These were the USA, UK, Germany, Denmark, Australia and Switzerland."

Herbert Gintis added:

"Their results suggest that the success of democratic market societies may depend critically upon moral virtues as well as material interests, so the depiction of civil society as the sphere of 'naked self-interest' is radically incorrect."

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