Did Culture, Not Biology, Develop Humanity's Sense of Fair Play?

By Smriti Rao | March 22, 2010 8:12 am

iStock_000004363330XSmallFor years, scientists have debated where humanity’s sense of fairness came from. Some proposed it was a glitch in the brain’s wiring that causes people to be kind and fair to strangers, while others said it was a remnant of Stone Age thinking--that deep in our brains we see everyone we meet as part of our tiny family, and can’t imagine encountering someone who won’t ever be seen again [Wired]. But now, in a new study published in Science, scientists studying groups of people from different societies have suggested that our sense of fairness may depend on the type of society we live in.

The researchers found evidence that the more complex the society, the more developed those people’s sense of fairness. You can’t get the effects we’re seeing from genes,” said Joe Henrich, a University of British Columbia evolutionary psychologist and co-author of the study.” These are things you learn as a consequence of growing up in a particular place” [Wired].

For this study, scientists observed 2,100 people from different societies–from African herders, Colombian fishermen, and Missouri wage workers. The groups varied in size, and researchers also evaluated the people’s involvement in organized social activities like markets and religion–a common marker, scientists say, of the presence of a moral code that extends beyond kin. They then administered a series of games to study how group members viewed selfish behavior and how willing they were to punish it.

In the first game, the “dictator game,” volunteers were asked to split an amount of money with an anonymous member of his own community. They could share as much or as little as they want. So, in the pursuit of self-interest, there is really no motivation to share. In the second, the “ultimatum game,” the person was asked to split cash with an anonymous person—who could then reject the offer as unfair, in which case neither party got any money. So there is a motivation for the second player to accept any offer that was made.

In the last game, the “third-party punishment game,” the subject could make an offer to an anonymous person, which a third party judged as fair or unfair. If she deemed it unfair, then both she and the subject both lost money. In both the second and third games, punishers pay a price because they get more money if they abide by an unfair decision [ScienceNOW].

The study found that members of a large, complex society had a keener sense of fairness, with the money offered by subjects from larger societies ranging from 25 percent to 51 percent higher than the smaller groups. Scientists said the trend indicated that when people lived in larger communities, and participated more in markets and religion, they were more willing to share, and more willing to punish selfishness [Wired]; adding that actions taken by university students were vastly different than those who lived in smaller pastoral or hunter groups.

Lead researcher Joseph Henrich observed that members of smaller groups were unwilling to punish selfish behavior and were willing to keep much of the money for themselves. This may be because smaller communities lack the social norms or informal institutions like markets and religion, causing them to have narrower concepts of fairness. Henrich suggests that culture evolved toward fairness for hundreds of thousands of years before the advent of agriculture, which in turn fostered stable, ever-larger community structures that further accelerated the cultural evolution of fairness. This could have biological effects, favoring the development of linguistic and cognitive abilities, but the fundamental driver was culture [Wired].

However critics argue that in the absence of cultural context, the tests seem weak. Terming the games an “artificial situation,” evolutionary game theorists Martin Nowak and David Rand pointed out that college students are “used to [such] concepts and hunter-gatherers aren’t. Who knows how they’re understanding the game?” [ScienceNOW]

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Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Mind & Brain
  • NewEnglandBob

    This could have biological effects, favoring the development of linguistic and cognitive abilities, but the fundamental driver was culture

    I seriously doubt this statement. It goes too far and looks like Lamarckism.

  • http://www.stevearrowood.com Steve

    The metacognitive ability to know you are being evaluated (like scientists watching how you play a game) can alter one’s behavior and throw the results.

    I don’t doubt that some valid information regarding cultural impact on morals can be gathered from this study, but it would be nice to see more real-life situations studies in addition to games.

    (I’m not saying this study does not make sense, just saying that just because something makes sense does not mean it is entirely, or even at all, true.)

  • J-Frum

    This article doesn’t mention if the scientists took the different groups relationship with money into account. Students not only have more education and come from more complex societies than hunter gatherers, they are also far more priveliged and thus view a given amount of money as less valuable in relation to what they already “have”. An experiment like this is not a closed system, and one has to take into account the subjects socioeconomic status, even though this is not a stated part of the experiment. A hundred dollars is less valuable to me than to a herder on the serengeti, and thus it is easier for me to share it. Students can afford to lose the money, hunter gatherers may feel that they don’t.

  • RussA

    “The study found that members of a large, complex society had a keener sense of fairness … than the smaller groups.” …
    “This may be because smaller communities lack the social norms or informal institutions like markets and religion, causing them to have narrower concepts of fairness.”

    These statements might be true for most members of complex and small societies, but a trillion dollars or so of nest eggs disappearing from the stock markets late in 2008 demonstrates not every member of a complex society has a sense of fair play. If that doesn’t work for you, think of the advent of the company store in pre-union mining days. Markets are about profits more so than fair play. Also, history is full of religious folk missing a sense of fairness, as in the Inquisition and 9/11 to name only two.

  • Deni

    I agree that the awareness that their actions were being observed – and therefore judged – would necessarily change the subjects’ actions. I further agree, that this fictitious scenario would inevitably not be reflected in a true life scenario where someone’s survival (albeit truly life changing or merely a nicety) be at risk. So many variables will plan into the generosity of an individual (current mood, feeling of security, relationship with the recipient, social expectations) that a true picture would be difficult to come by. That said, there is more than likely a grain of truth in the more educated, and more religious seeing themselves as part of a larger community. This would foment generosity.

  • Eric Balkan

    The ultimatum test has been used for quite a while. Almost always — the exception is business students — the participant who gets less than what he thinks is a fair share will reject the split, ending up with nothing — just the satisfaction of not being taken advantage of.

    In a similar test involving monkeys, when one monkey got grapes as a reward and a second monkey just got his regular food for doing the same task, the second monkey threw his bowl at the researcher.

    According to neuroscientists, when we perceive something as unfair, the pain center in our brain is activated.

    My own conclusion: we have a sense of fairness/unfairness that can be mediated (distorted?) by culture and social group.

  • Bradyforce

    They should do the study on children since they adopt their sense of fairness from the culture at large and from imitating their parents and others they are exposed to.Also just recently I heard on Public Radio “Speaking of Faith” program a discussion about whether animals have a sense of morality or fairness and I can’t recall the guest’s comments at the moment but want to say they had studied how animals benefit evolutionarily to a sense of fairness, and that basically he was arguing a for evolutionary basis for the existence of religion and even secular moral codes and policing or enforcement of law and order. I thought that was an interesting take on religion as evolutionary advantage for humans and it also may also explain why such codes are so hard to practice universally, that is to say its a hell of a lot easier to justify killing an enemy in a war for example that to justify a murdr of a child. They are not morally equivalent of course but the commandment does not give much wiggle room by only saying “thou shall not kill children and innocents” but rather just says “thou shall not kill .” So too I would expect the value of being fair to a stranger or outsider is probably lower in a tribal or insular society as there would not be a very high cost to being fair and little reward. But in a more interconnected society the rule of law makes the machine work and so there is more cost like criminal prosecution for example for committing fraud and therefore more incentive not to be unfair to strangers. Likewise an interconnected society is more dependent upon others for their continued comfort so being :nice” and neighborly becomes more useful as your neighborhood grows.

  • http://www.ifollowhumanity.com/ Prem

    i agree with J-Frum’s comment above. A simple term as money can create major differences in someone’s defintion of ‘fairness’.

  • http://www.baileyswines.com Phil Bailey

    I would suggest that culture has indeed had a massive bearing on humanity’s sense of fair play, but maybe by making us into political creatures. We are instinctively able to weigh up winners and losers, but in times of uncertainty we tend towards the moral high ground until it becomes clear which side of a particular argument is gaining superiority.

    Politics, gang culture, office heirarchy and even families all show the human’s ability to create a moral high ground as a form of argument. It is almost like creating the zero in mathematics, we create it to show neutrality. But human’s rarely stay neutral for long, as the game of chess is played out. We seem almost eager to take a side before the win in conceded, I presume so that we can say that we were always loyal to our chieftans.

    So, sense of fair play or a big bluff until we better understand the rules of the current game that we are in ?

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