Friday, July 06, 2012

The Weakness of Strong Reciprocity (Part 3)

If the argument for strong reciprocity is to succeed, Bowles and Gintis must persuade us that there is evidence for a strong propensity for human beings to cooperate with others and to punish cheaters, even when this cooperation and this punishment are costly, and the costs cannot be recouped through reciprocation. 

One likely way in which there could be some payback through reciprocation would be from the benefits of having a good reputation for being a cooperator and a moralistic punisher.  This is what theorists of "reciprocal altruism" call "indirect reciprocity."  To deny this possibility, Bowles and Gintis must persuade us that what looks like evidence for strong reciprocity cannot be explained as social conduct motivated by cues suggesting that this conduct will build or maintain a good reputation for the actor.  These reputational cues could be unconscious, and they could be deceptive, in the sense that the actor could be motivated by an unconscious concern for reputation even though there is little or no chance that the conduct will really enhance the good reputation of the actor.  Human beings often act properly because they want to look good in the eyes of others, and they have some vague feeling that someone might see them.  (Notice how this comes up in Plato's Republic, in the discussion of whether just conduct depends on the fear of being punished, even if only through a bad reputation, and of whether people would be just if they had the "ring of Gyges" that would make them invisible.)

Consider this famous natural experiment to test for this kind of behavior.  The Division of Psychology at the University of Newcastle in England has a system by which its members pay for their tea, coffee, and milk by putting money in an "honesty box."  Above the box, there is a posted notice indicating the prices for the drinks, and people are enjoined to voluntarily pay their fair share into the box.  When people are alone in the room with the drinks, their decision to pay is anonymous. 

The experiment was to test the effect of images put above the posted notice.  For alternating weeks, the image would be either a picture of flowers or a picture of a pair of human eyes.  There was a careful record of the amount paid in proportion to the amount of drinks.  It was found that during the weeks when the image of a pair of eyes was posted, the money put into the honesty box was much higher than during the weeks when there was just an image of flowers.

One explanation for such generosity in which people pay their fair share of a public good even when their fairness is anonymous is that they are strong reciprocators, who are moved by other-regarding preferences shaped by a history of group selection.  That's the argument of Bowles and Gintis.  But in this experiment, the researchers concluded that this was not plausible:
A simpler explanation is simply that humans are strongly attuned to cues that generally indicate reputational consequences of behavior . . . .  If even very weak, subconscious cues, such as the photocopied eyes used in this experiment, can strongly enhance cooperation, it is quite possible that the cooperativeness observed in other studies results from the presence in the experimental environment of subtle cues evoking the psychology of being observed.  The power of these subconscious cues may be sufficient to override the explicit instructions of the experimenter to the effect that behaviour is anonymous.  If this interpretation is correct, then the self-interested motive of reputation maintenance may be sufficient to explain cooperation in the absence of direct return. (413)
This experiment might seem trivial.  But the researchers rightly indicate that using images of eyes to motivate good behavior points to some deep evolutionary and neurophysiological grounds of human social conduct.  Like some other primates, human beings have evolved to be visual animals whose social norms are largely enforced through watching and being watched.  The human perceptual system has special neural circuitry to perceive and respond to faces, eyes, and social gazes (Emery, 2000; Itier and Batty, 2009).  As social animals who rely on visual signals of social praise and blame, we need to know when we are being watched, and we need to know what those eyes of the spectators are telling us, because we need to look good.  (One major reason for autistic people being socially awkward is that disorders in their neural circuitry make it hard for them to interpret and respond to social signalling through faces and eyes: they cannot read the minds of those around them because they cannot read their eyes.) The human concern for looking good is a major theme of Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments and of his appeal to the "impartial spectator" as our standard of judgment.

This experiment in Newcastle might explain what happened when Vernon Smith conducted his double blind Dictator Game experiments, so that it was absolutely impossible for the experimenters to know what decisions the players made:  by removing even the subconscious cues that the players were being watched--that their reputations were being judged by the experimenters--players were free to be selfish, and over 64% of the dictators kept all the money for themselves.

In A Cooperative Species, Bowles and Gintis reject this interpretation.  They quote from the last sentence of the report on the Newcastle research: "the self-interested motive of reputation maintenance may be sufficient to explain cooperation in the absence of direct return." 

To this, they respond:
The conclusion is a non-sequitur.  It is incorrect to infer from the fact that people act more generously when there appear to be witnesses that people exhibit other-regarding preferences only when they believe, consciously or otherwise, that they are being observed.  The above evidence is completely consistent with our view that individuals have moral values that they uphold for their own sake, although their self-assessment as moral beings is highly sensitive to how they fare in the eyes of others.  The idea goes back to Adam Smith. (44)
They then quote this passage from Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, although they mistakenly omit the second sentence:
Nature, when she formed man for society, endowed him with an original desire to please, and an original aversion to offend his brethren. She taught him to feel pleasure in their favourable, and pain in their unfavourable regard. She rendered their approbation most flattering and more agreeable to him for its own sake; and their disapprobation most mortifying and most offensive (III.2.6, italics added). 
Bowles and Gintis then explain this by citing the twentieth-century sociologist Charles Horton Cooley who coined the term "looking-glass self," which means that "we strive to please others not only for reputation (material reward in either present or future), but also because our self-esteem depends on others' evaluation of us."   Actually, they could have noted that Smith himself uses the phrase "moral looking-glass" (TMS, III.1.5).

They write:
We internalize norms that provide for us moral and prosocial preferences, and our self-esteem depends on meeting moral and prosocial expectations.  While some individuals are capable of maintaining high self-esteem from personal self-assessment, most individuals are acutely dependent upon the positive evaluation of their behavior by others.  The looking-glass self is thus an amalgam of personal self-assessment and the assessment of others (45).
The point here seems to be, according to Bowles and Gintis, that while "the self-interested motive of reputation maintenance" is the partial explanation for why people contribute generously to public goods, it is not "sufficient," because some people, even if only a few, are generous because they think it's the right thing to do, regardless of whether this contributes to their good reputation.  Most people depend upon how they are judged by others for their self-esteem, and they're the ones who would be influenced by subconscious neural cues of being watched.  But a few people can maintain their moral self-esteem from their own self-assessment, and thus they do not depend completely on the opinions of others, although they would prefer to be well regarded by others.

Although Adam Smith stresses the importance of social praise and blame in shaping our moral conduct, he also seems to agree with Bowles and Gintis that "the self-interested motive of reputation maintenance" cannot explain the conduct of those few people who love virtue for its own sake.  In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, this is particularly clear in the section on distinguishing the love of praise from the love of praiseworthiness (III.2) and in the section on "licentious systems" like that of Mandeville (VII.2.4).  Although most human beings need the reward of praise and honor for their good conduct, a few can maintain their self-esteem even when their virtue is not recognized.  "Though a wise man feels little pleasure from praise where he knows there is no praise-worthiness, he often feels the highest in doing what he knows to be praise-worthy, though he knows equally well that no praise is ever to be bestowed upon it" (III.2.7).  Similarly, "a man of real magnanimity" can act "solely from a regard to what is right and fit to be done, from a regard to what is the proper object of esteem and approbation, though these sentiments should never be bestowed upon him."  And yet this is rare: "It seldom happens, however, that human nature arrives at this degree of firmness" (VII.2.4.10).

Smith's "wise man" and his "man of real magnanimity" seem to manifest what Bowles and Gintis identify as strong reciprocity--doing what is right even when it is personally costly, and when there is no prospect of being personally rewarded by others.  But it also seems that such conduct is weak in the sense that it's rare, because only a few people will show such conduct.

Smith disagrees fundamentally, however, with Bowles and Gintis, because while they assume a dichotomy between self-interest and altruism or between self-regarding and other-regarding conduct, Smith rightly rejects the idea that virtue must be selfless or self-denying.  Bowles and Gintis separate "the Homo economicus of the Adam Smith of The Wealth of Nations" from the "virtuous citizens of the Adam Smith of The Theory of Moral Sentiments" (200).  (This is the famous "Adam Smith problem.")  But Smith himself does not see such a strict dichotomy.  There is a sense in which all virtue is rooted in self-love, because virtue is self-perfection or excellence.  The moral and intellectual virtues are the conditions for our happiness or flourishing.  And some of those virtues are concerned with the prudent pursuit of our material interests.  The pursuit of wealth can be virtuous (TMS, I.1.1.1, II.2.2.1, III.5.8, IV.1.10, VI.1, VI.2.1, VII.2.3.16, VII.2.4.8, VII.3.1.4).

Smith's account of morality as rooted in self-love has been confirmed by recent research on the evolution of mammalian sociality and the neural basis of social attachment.  In mammalian evolution, the neural circuitry for physical pain was appropriated for registering social pain in animals adapted for social attachment. Mammals must care for the survival and well-being not only of themselves but of others to whom they are attached. Extending the neural mechanisms originally evolved for individual self-preservation to include the welfare of offspring and social partners secures mammalian social order. The uniquely human evolution of the neocortex elaborates this mammalian development to sustain human love and concern for others.  Perhaps Bowles and Gintis are pointing to this when they write about the social emotions as "social analogues to pain" (186-94).

I have elaborated some of these points in some previous posts here, here, here, and here.


Bateson, Melissa, Daniel Nettle, and Gilbert Roberts (2006). "Cues of Being Watched Enhance Cooperation in a Real-World Setting."  Biology Letters 2:412-414.

Emery, N. J. (2000).  "The Eyes Have It: The Neuroethology, Function, and Evolution of Social Gaze."  Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 24: 581-604.

Itier, Roxanne J., and Magali Batty (2009).  "Neural Bases of Eye and Gaze Processing: The Core of Social Cognition."  Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 33: 843-863.

1 comment:

Troy Camplin said...

It seems to me that if Bowles and Gintis are correct, there would be very few people in the gift economy (the spontaneous orders of the sciences, the arts, the humanities, and philanthropy). However, there are many people in the gift economy. Why? Because reputation is in the gift economy what profits are in the market economy.