When Delta Airlines refused to let Arijit Guha board a plane because his T-shirt made passengers uncomfortable, others made Delta aware of their outrage. When Samsung infringed Apple’s copyright, a jury of independent peers awarded Apple more than $1 billion in damages. When Republican Todd Akin claimed that women could stop themselves from becoming pregnant if raped, people called for his head.
These recent events all illustrate a broad human trait: we seek to punish people who do wrong and violate our social rules, even when their actions don’t harm us directly. We call for retribution, even if we have nothing specific to gain from it and even if it costs us time, effort, status or money to do so. This “third-party punishment” is thought to cement human societies together, and prevents cheats and free-riders from running riot. If you wrong someone, and they’re the only ones who want to sanction you, the price of vice is low. If an entire society condemns you, the cost skyrockets.
Do other animals do the same thing? It’s not clear, but one group of scientists believes that our closest relative – the chimpanzee – does not. Katrin Riedl from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany found that chimpanzees will punish individuals who steal food from them, but not those who steal food from others. Even if the victim was a close relative, the third party never sought to punish the thief. These were the first direct tests of third-party punishment in a non-human animal, and the chimps got an F.
Compared to most other animals, humans are unusual in our tendency to help each other out. We donate to charity. We give blood. We show kindness to strangers, even when we stand to gain nothing in return. This behaviour is so odd that the natural question arises: are we alone in such selflessness? And if any animal could help to answer that question, it’s the chimpanzee, one of our closest relatives.
Dozens of scientists study the behaviour of chimps, looking at how these apes act towards their peers. But the results of these studies have been frustrating for many in the field. People who watch captive and wild chimps have documented hundreds of cases of seemingly altruistic behaviour. They have seen individuals helping each other to climb walls, consoling each other after fights, sharing food, risking death to save companions from drowning, and even adopting the babies of dead and unrelated peers. Anecdotes like these suggest that chimps, like humans, behave selflessly towards each other.
But experiments have often shown otherwise. In some studies, chimps choose to help their peers retrieve out-of-reach objects rather than doing nothing. But when chimps have a choice between two equal actions – say, cashing in a token that leads to personal gain versus another that also benefits a partner – they only looked out for themselves. One paper bore the title “Chimpanzees are indifferent to the welfare of unrelated group members”. Another concluded that “chimpanzees made their choices based solely on personal gain”.
Collectively, these studies championed a view of chimps as reluctant altruists, who only act selflessly in response to pressure, and who generally don’t help unfamiliar chimps, “even when they are able to do so at virtually no cost to themselves”. But Frans de Waal from the Living Links Centre at Emory University thinks that this portrait is wrong. He says, “The authors of these studies moved from not finding evidence for prosocial choice to thinking they had proven its absence.”
De Waal thinks that the previous tests handicapped the chimps by putting them in situations that masked their altruistic tendencies. They couldn’t communicate, they had to cope with complicated equipment involving levers, and they often sat so far apart that they had little understanding of how their choices affected their fellows. With his colleague Victoria Horner, de Waal designed a new experiment to account for these problems. And, lo and behold, chimps spontaneously helped their partners, even without any prompting.
Meerkats already look like a textbook case of a cooperative social animal. They live in groups of up to 50 individuals. All of them help to dig and guard the community’s burrows. They babysit, feed and teach the colony’s pups, regardless of whose offspring they are. The society already seems like the model of altruism, but there is a way of making meerkats even more cooperative – injecting them with a hormone called oxytocin.
As teenagers, we probably associate with different people to those whose company we keep as adults. At one point in our lives, we may want subversive influences, while preferring support and stability at other times. The same is true for other partnerships in nature.
Take the whistling-thorn acacia. This African tree forms partnerships with four different species of ants. Some provide a valuable service as bodyguards (even routing elephants), while others have been written off as freeloaders and parasites. But Todd Palmer has found that these labels are too simplistic. In fact, none of the ants is a perfect partner. The tree actually does best by switching its alliances throughout the course of its life. At certain times, partnering with a parasite is actually its best course of action.
In the body of a snail, a war is waging. It’s so violent that the only reason there isn’t blood everywhere is that the combatants don’t have any blood. The fighters are flatworms, simple parasites that have taken over the snail. Its body is now theirs, a shell in which they mate, cooperate, and produce more flatworms. But they don’t have it all to themselves – other colonies, and even other species of flatworms can invade the same snail. When that happens, war breaks out and the flatworms wage it with something more commonly associated with ants or humans – a caste of soldiers.
Humans are capable of great charity, taking hits to their bank accounts and bodies to benefit their peers. But such acts of altruism aren’t limited to us; they can be found in the simple colonies of bacteria too.
Bacteria are famed for their ability to adapt to our toughest antibiotics. But resistance doesn’t spring up evenly across an entire colony. A new study suggests that a small cadre of hero bacteria are responsible for saving their peers. By shouldering the burden of resistance at a personal cost, these charitable cells ensure that the entire colony survives.
Most human men would be appalled at the idea of their mothers helping them to get laid. But then again, we’re hardly as sexually carefree as bonobos. While these apes live in female-led societies, the males also have a strict pecking order. For those at the bottom, mum’s assistance may be the only thing that allows them to father the next generation.
A ladybird larva is on the prowl on a witch hazel plant. The youngster is a voracious predator and it’s hunting for aphids. It seems to have found a bountiful feast – a swollen structure called a gall that houses an entire aphid colony. With so many meals in one place, the colony seems easy prey, but it has staunch defenders.
As the ladybird approaches, aphids pour out of the gall and grab the predator by their jaws and legs. It’s a suicide defence. The aphids secrete massive amounts of waxy liquid from their bodies, which quickly solidifies and glues the ladybird to the plant. Unable to walk or bite, the ladybird dies and the aphids go with it. In the video below, you can see what happens when one of these aphids is prodded with a needle.
There is more to these suicidal protectors that meets the eye. Keigo Uematsu and University of Tokyo found that all of them are ‘menopausal’. They are the parents of the other aphids in the gall but their reproductive days are long behind them. With no further opportunities to raise the next generation, their final role is to defend their offspring, with their lives if necessary.
Ever wonder if acts of kindness or malice really do ripple outwards? If you give up a seat on a train to a stranger, do they go onto “pay it forward” to others? Likewise, if you steal someone’s seat, does the bad mood you engender topple over to other people like a set of malicious dominoes? We’d all probably assume that the answers to both questions were yes, but James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis think they have found experimental evidence for the contagious nature of cooperation and cheating.
The duo analysed data from an earlier psychological experiment by Ernst Fehr and Simon Gachter, where groups of four volunteers had to decide how much money to put in a public pot. For every unit they chipped in, each member would get 0.4 back. So any donations represent a loss to the donor, but a gain to the group as a whole. The best way for the group to benefit would be for everyone to put in all their money, but each individual player could do even better by putting in nothing and feeding off their peers’ generosity.
This “public goods game” went on for six rounds. At the end of each one, the players were told what their other comrades did, although everyone’s identities were kept secret. The groups were shuffled between rounds so that players never played with each other more than once.
Fowler and Christakis found that the volunteers’ later moves were influenced by the behaviour of their fellow players. Each act of generosity by an individual influenced the other three players to also give more money themselves, and each of them influenced the people they played with later. One act became three, which became nine. Likewise, players who experienced stingy strategies were more likely to be stingy themselves.
Even though the groups swapped every time, the contagious nature of generous or miserly actions carried on for at least three degrees of separation. You can see an example of one such cascade in the diagram below. Eleni contributes some money to the public pot and her fellow player, Lucas, benefits (one degree). In the next round, Lucas himself offers money for the good of the group, which benefits Erika (two degrees), who gives more when paired with Jay in her next game (three degrees). Meanwhile, the effects of Eleni’s initial charity continue to spread throughout the players as Lucas and Erika persist in their cooperation in later rounds.
What do you think a group of women would do if they were given a dose of testosterone before playing a game? Our folk wisdom tells us that they would probably become more aggressive, selfish or antisocial. Well, that’s true… but only if they think they’ve been given testosterone.
If they don’t know whether they’ve been given testosterone or placebo, the hormone actually has the opposite effect to the one most people would expect – it promotes fair play. The belligerent behaviour stereotypically linked to testosterone only surfaces if people think they’ve been given hormone, whether they receive a placebo or not. So strong are the negative connotations linked to testosterone that they can actually overwhelm and reverse the hormone’s actual biological effects.
If ever a hormone was the subject of clichés and stereotypes, it is testosterone. In pop culture, it has become synonymous with masculinity, although women are subject to its influence too. Injections of testosterone can make lab rats more aggressive, and this link is widely applied to humans. The media portrays “testosterone-charged” people as sex-crazed and financially flippant and the apparent link with violence is so pervasive that the use of steroids has even been used as a legal defence in a US court.
Christoph Eisenegger from the University of Zurich tested this folk wisdom by enrolling 60 women in a double-blind randomised controlled trial. They were randomly given either a 0.5 milligram drop of testosterone or a placebo. He only recruited women because previous research shows exactly how much testosterone you need to have an effect, and how long it takes to do so. We don’t know that for men.
The women couldn’t have known which substance they were given, but Eisenegger asked them to guess anyway. Their answers confirmed that they couldn’t tell the difference between the two drops. But they would also confirm something more startling by the trial’s end.
Each woman was paired with a partner (from another group of 60) and played an “Ultimatum game” for a pot of ten Swiss francs. One woman, the “proposer”, decided how to allocate it and her partner, “the responder” could choose to accept or refuse the offer. If she accepts, the money is split as suggested and if she refuses, both players go empty-handed. The fairest split would be an equal one but from the responder’s point of view, any money would be better than nothing. The game rarely plays out like that though – so disgusted are humans with unfairness that responders tend to reject low offers, sacrificing their own meagre gains to spite their proposers.
Overall, Eisenegger found that women under the influence of testosterone actually offered more money to their partners than those who received the placebo. The effect was statistically significant and it’s exactly the opposite of the selfish, risk-taking, antagonistic behaviour that stereotypes would have us predict.
Those behaviours only surfaced if women thought they had been given testosterone. Those women made lower offers than their peers who believed they had tasted a placebo, regardless of which drop they had been given. The amazing thing is that this negative ‘imagined’ effect actually outweighed the positive ‘real’ one. On average, a drop of testosterone increased a proposer’s offer by 0.6 units, but belief in the hormone’s effects reduced the offer by 0.9 units.
The difference between these values is not statistically significant, so we can’t conclude that the negative effect outweighs the positive one, but the two are certainly comparable. Either way, it is a staggering result. It implies that the biological effect of a behaviour-altering hormone can be masked, if not reversed, by what we think it does. It’s somewhat similar to the nocebo effect, where people experience unwanted side effects from a drug because they believe that such effects will happen.
How can we explain these results? Certainly, Eisenegger accounted for the volunteers’ levels of testosterone before the experiment, as well as their levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), their mood and their feelings of anxiety, anger, calmness or wakefulness. None of these factors affected his results.
It’s possible that people who are naturally inclined towards selfish, aggressive or dominant behaviour would find it easier to rationalise their actions if they felt that they were under the spell of testosterone. However, these personality traits weren’t any more common among the recruits who thought they were given testosterone than those who thought they had a placebo.
Instead, Eisenegger suggests that testosterone’s negative stereotype provided some of the women with a licence to misbehave. Their beliefs relieved them from the responsibility of making socially acceptable offers because they thought they would be driven to make greedy ones.
At first, this work seems to contradict the results from earlier studies, which suggest that high testosterone levels are linked with risk-taking, selfishness and aggression. But these studies can’t tell us whether the former causes the latter. Indeed, another randomised trial that I’ve blogged about before found that doses of testosterone didn’t affect a woman’s selflessness, trust, trustworthiness, fairness or attitude to risk. This study also used an Ultimatum game but it only analysed the behaviour of the responder rather than the proposer.
The alternative hypothesis says that testosterone plays a much subtler role in shaping our social lives. When our social status is challenged, testosterone drives us to increase our standing; how we do that depends on the situation. Traders might take bigger financial risks, while prisoners might have a dust-up. Eisenegger thinks that this is the right explanation, and his results support his view. In his experiment, women who received testosterone would be more inclined towards acts that boosted their social status, and the best way of doing that was to make a fair offer.
The message from this study is clear, and Eisenegger sums it up best himself:
“Whereas other animals may be predominantly under the influence of biological factors such as hormones, biology seems to exert less control over human behaviour. Our findings also teach an important methodological lesson for future studies: it is crucial to control for subjects’ beliefs because the [effect of a pure substance] may be otherwise under- or overestimated.”
Reference: Nature doi:10.1038/nature08711
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