A Link between Altruism and Fairness
I write a lot about altruism, fairness, and cooperation in my new book (out in February!), and this sort of thing interests me a lot:
In a new study, researchers had 15-month old babies watch movies of a person distributing crackers or milk to two others, either evenly or unevenly. Babies look at things longer when they’re surprised, so measuring looking time can be used to gain insight into what babies expect to happen. In the study, the infants looked longer when the person in the video distributed the foods unevenly, suggesting surprise, and perhaps even an early perception of fairness.
But the team also say they established a link between fairness and altruism. In a second part of the experiment, the babies chose between two toys, and were then asked to share one of the toys with an experimenter. About a third of the babies were “selfish sharers”: they shared the toy they hadn’t chosen. Another third were “altruistic sharers”: they shared their chosen toy. (The rest chose not to share. They may have been inhibited by the unfamiliarity of the experimenter, or maybe they just weren’t that into sharing.)
What’s interesting about the second half of the study was that by and large it was the babies who had previously been surprised by the unfair cracker and milk distribution who tended to share the preferred toy with the experimenter (the altruistic sharers). The babies who shared the rejected toy hadn’t expressed much surprise over unequal distribution. This led the researchers to suggest that there’s a fundamental link between altruism and a sense of equity.
Both psychology and neuroscience have a lot to say about these topics, and the resulting debate reads like a subset of the “Is there such a thing as free will?” debate. I think those who believe there is no free will are misdefining the term.
What does this have to do with security? Everything. It’s not until we understand the natural human tendencies of fairness and altruism that we can really understand people who take advantage of those tendencies, and build systems to prevent them from taking advantage.
EDITED TO ADD (12/14): Related research with dogs.