Garett Jones  

On Human Evil (Economic Experiment Edition)

As Goes Janesville ... CPI Bias and Experiment Bias...
Bryan says

I'd be much more impressed by an experiment showing that subjects spontaneously try to hurt others.

Actually, there are plenty of those in the experimental public goods literature.  The questions raised by these public goods experiments might be what started the "money burning" experiments. 

In a typical public goods game, four or five people are each given a little money, and then they individually decide whether to put some of that money in a pot.  The money in the pot doubles, and then all the money in the pot gets divided up among the four or five players (numbers are just representative, of course).  If you're only playing this game once, the homo economicus thing to do is contribute nothing--you should just free-ride.  

However, in actual experiments, people contribute about 40 to 60 percent of their initial endowment; Nobelist Elinor Ostrom sums up the findings in a non-technical paper here (PDF).  If the same players repeat the game for a while, contributions drop off.  So in this context, typical people aren't narrow materialists, but they aren't saints either.  

This experimental literature went in a lot of directions, but one matters for us: Some economists added a chance for players to punish other players by taking away their money (usually at a cost to the punisher).  The thought was that if people suspected they'd be punished if they didn't contribute, they'd contribute more.  And of course, that's just what happened. 

But something awful happened too: Some players punished people who were highly cooperative!  So here was a power that--to any casual observer--was specifically designed by the experimenter to punish the wicked.  

What did a substantial number of players do with that power?  They punished the saints.  Given a chance to spur cooperation, they "spontaneously [tried] to hurt others." 

Cinyabuguma/Page/Putterman call this "perverse punishment". Here's what they found

In our own estimates, typically 20% or more of all punishment events are directed at the highest contributor in the group (or highest contributors if there are ties).

The saints must be taught a lesson.  

Herrmann/Thöni/Gächter ran these kinds of games across 18 societies.  In the median society, the ratio of non-perverse to perverse punishment looks like it's about 3:1.  Perverse punishment is not rare.  

So, what kind of evil is this?  The money-burning literature helps to answer that question.  If the vast majority of people had at least a little bit of empathy, then when they saw a person who lost money through no fault of her own, they would be reluctant to hurt that person.  As the saying goes, you don't kick a man while he's down.  

What happens in experiments when nature (or a random draw of cards) destroys part of the wealth of a fellow test subject? 

In "The Pleasure of Being Nasty," experimenters had two test conditions: One where all suffering was inflicted by the players, and a second where part of the suffering was inflicted by a random card draw.  In the second condition, players punished each other much more, in each and every round of the game.  

Certainly a case of kicking a man while he's down.  

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COMMENTS (14 to date)
Tom West writes:

I'd be much more impressed by an experiment showing that subjects spontaneously try to hurt others.

Clearly Bryan has never played a massively multi-player online game. There, "griefers" (those who cause harm to others for the fun of it) are fairly common.

(In games where cooperation is encouraged, but not required, I'd say that a 3-1 ratio of people who will spontaneously help you for no reason/no reward vs. people who will spontaneously harm you for no reason/no gain is also about right.)

Tom West writes:

By the way, I would think that real-life displays of this behaviour would be considerably less common. Games and small experiments allow one to anonymously indulge one's worst impulses with much less guilt ("it was just a game", etc.)

My experience with others is that the impulse (or at least giving into it) also declines fairly steadily from about age 14 to 25.

N. writes:

I would agree that real-life public displays of this behavior are less common. Privately however...

David R. Henderson writes:

I'm wondering how you handle the criticism of these kinds of experiments by Steven Landsburg. He wrote it a couple of years ago or so, I think on Slate. The idea is that yes, they're hurting others in these games but they're also helping others, namely the ones paying for the games who get to keep the funds.

Garett Jones writes:


At that point, I think I'd just appeal to violent crime statistics.

I'm actually planning a post related to that.

Ken B writes:

Numerous anthopologists have found in hunter gatherer societies mechanisms to punish the prominent and enforce a certain levelling. Or rather they claim that is what they find. Perhaps that is wishful thinking from the egalitarian minded, misreading the urge to evil Garett is arguing for.

(I am skeptical of their conclusions I will say.)

Garett Jones writes:


Also, the "Pleasure of Being Nasty" paper is a nice test: If players really cared about the university's money, but cared about the other player *at least a little*, they'd worry more about the other player when that unlucky player experienced the cruel hand of fate.

Instead, players pile on.

More formally, if players think each other (and the university, the residual claimant) each experience diminishing marginal utility of wealth, then when fate deals a cruel hand to the other player, a rational person would care a little more about the player's suffering and a little less about the university's need for cash.

That doesn't happen.

Ken B writes:

@Garett re your answer to David. Couldn't it be that people are objecting -- at some emotional level -- to what they see as unmerited rewards? The largess of the experimenters flowing to people playing the game I mean. So then they zap the most prominent/active/egregious example? Wouldn't that explain the effect?

Steve Sailer writes:

God, please kill my neighbor's cow.

Garett Jones writes:


Yes, that would explain it. Indeed, what some people call "egregious" is what other people would call "being nice."

That's just the point. There are people who see a person doing a nice thing and say to themselves, "What a jerk: Who does she think she is?"

It's easy to find news stories of good Samaritans who are attacked while giving aid. I'm sure the motives of the attackers are complicated and worthy of investigation.

But it would be better if the attackers didn't have those motives.

MatthewH writes:

Griefers have been mentioned above. Some are malicious -but some are just puckish. I would be interested in how many of these money-burners are doing it because they enjoy being mean, and how many are doing it because they think it's great fun, and anyway it doesn't really hurt anyone.

Not that it necessarilly matters to the conclusion.

MingoV writes:

I agree with the skeptics. These games have never proved to correlate with real world behavior. If you want to study such behavior in a more realistic setting, have each player bring $5,000 of his own money. The results will be vastly different: I predict that most won't risk their money.

Jason Malloy writes:

"namely the ones paying for the games who get to keep the funds."

The only person in the world who would plausibly think this way while playing this game is Steven Landsburg.

The nations that exhibited more antisocial punishment (fig 1) are also the nations that exhibit a more general pattern of antisocial behavior and economic dysfunction. Antisocial punishment is also associated with psychopathy.

Ken B writes:
The only person in the world who would plausibly think this way while playing this game is Steven Landsburg
No, not even Steve is THAT smart.

I think a LOT of people can think it, and I gave a mechanism above: the vague sense that people are getting something for nothing. I expect a lot of people can get that felling. Or the feeling 'wow this is great I am getting free money'. That's the obverse of 'wow I am getting money from someone'. Some people will feel uneasy or explicitly think about it.

Or some people -- like me -- will go into the experiment with a strong bias against this kind of 'science' and so such thoughts will be uppermost in their minds.

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