January 05, 2011

Altruism Wanes with Opportunity for Egoistic Gain

This comes from a presentation that was done by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Their talk claims that experimental data suggests that altruistic acts occur when one's options are closed to giving or keeping a gain, but that they always slide into egoistic tendencies when their options present them. Steven presents the aforesaid trend as a desire to seem altruistic to some imaginary audience, and has construed even the act of giving as an act of egoism, and thus he argues that all acts are still egoistic, just cooperatively so.

One aspect of the experiment that may lead these experiments' subjects to give their money may be risk-aversion in light of unexpected consequences. People are generally unaccustomed to instant rewards, and so might initially greet the experiment with skepticism, and thus try to hint at a willingness to cooperate with an imagined group of intra-experimental reciprocators. One way to test against this is to re-invite all of those subjects to see how much they'll give or take in subsequent scenarios, and then to check against an anticipated rate of profit for partaking in the experiment. It's not clear from this presentation that they've done this, but it would be interesting to see what changes might result. Highly egoistic results in light of this kind of test would speak very much to the vindication of psychological egoism.

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