The Selfish Gene
The Selfish Gene (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The bad eliminating 'more' bad...?

By Natalie Angier

After decades of focusing on such staples of bad behavior as aggressiveness, selfishness, narcissism and greed, scientists have turned their attention to the subtler theme of spite – the urge to punish, hurt, humiliate or harass another, even when one gains no obvious benefit and may well pay a cost.

Psychologists are exploring spitefulness in its customary role as a negative trait, a lapse that should be embarrassing but is often sublimated as righteousness, as when you take your time pulling out of a parking space because you notice another car is waiting for it.

Evolutionary theorists, by contrast, are studying what might be viewed as the brighter side of spite, and the role it may have played in the origin of admirable traits like a cooperative spirit and a sense of fair play.

The new research transcends older notions that we are savage, selfish brutes at heart, as well as more recent suggestions that humans inherently yearn to love and connect. Instead, it concludes that vice and virtue may be inextricably linked.

“Spitefulness is such an intrinsically interesting subject, and it fits with so many people’s everyday experience, that I was surprised to see how little mention there was of it in the psychology literature,” said David K. Marcus, a psychologist at Washington State University.

Reporting in February in the journal Psychological Assessment, Dr. Marcus and his colleagues described a survey they created to assess individual differences in spitefulness, just as existing personality tests measure traits like agreeableness and extroversion. A total of 946 college students and 297 adults were asked to rate how firmly they agreed with sentiments like, “If my neighbor complained about the appearance of my front yard, I would be tempted to make it look worse just to annoy him or her,” or, “If I opposed the election of an official, I would happily see the person fail even if that failure hurt my community.”

The researchers determined that men were generally more spiteful than women and young adults more spiteful than older ones.

For their part, evolutionary theorists have long been intrigued by the origins and purpose of spite, and a new report suggests that sometimes spite can make right.

Patrick Forber of Tufts University and Rory Smead of Northeastern University, both in Massachusetts, designed a computer model of virtual players challenging each other to single rounds of the ultimatum game.

According to the rules, Player A decided how a pot of money was to be shared with Player B. If B consented to the split, both received the agreed-upon portion; If B rejected the offer, neither player received anything.

The contestants were assigned one of four predetermined strategies, from the easygoing approach of, “When you’re Player A, you share 50-50, but when you’re Player B you accept any offer, no matter how stingy,” to the spiteful, “When you’re A, you make a stingy offer, but when you’re B you spurn a stingy offer.” The researchers then allowed the players to coalesce into mock societies, and they were startled by the results.

Although groups of excessively spiteful or selfish players quickly collapsed, and rigidly fair-minded societies were readily destabilized by influxes of selfish exploiters, the flexible sharers not only proved able to coexist with the spiteful types, but the presence of spiteful had the effect of enhancing the rate of fair exchanges among the genials. Dr. Smead said it seemed that “fairness is acting as a defense against spite.”

The results echo other recent research suggesting that human decency and cooperation require a certain degree of so-called altruistic punishment: the willingness of some individuals to punish rule breakers even when the infraction does not directly affect them.

Omar Tonsi Eldakar of Nova Southeastern University in Florida has studied the link between cooperative behavior and what he calls selfish punishment. “Why is everyone always assuming that it’s the good guys who are doing the punishing?” he asked. “Selfish individuals have more reason than anyone else to want to get rid of other cheaters.”

Using game theory models, Dr.Eldakar has demonstrated that when selfish players intent on maximizing their profits regularly punish other selfish players or exclude them from the group, the net outcome is an overall decline in selfish exchanges to a reasonably stable state.

“It’s like the Mafia,” he said. They end up reducing crime in the areas they inhabit.”

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, April 12, 2014


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