Rory Smead

The dark side of fair play

Assistant professor of philosophy Rory Smead studies the evolution of social behaviors such as spite
March 7th, 2014

We often think of playing fair as an altruistic behavior. We’re sac­ri­ficing our own potential gain to give others what they deserve. What could be more selfless than that? But new research from Northeastern Uni­ver­sity assistant professor of phi­los­ophy Rory Smead suggests another, darker origin behind the kindly act of fairness.

Smead studies spite. It’s a conundrum that evo­lu­tionary biol­o­gists and behavioral philosophers have been mulling over for decades, and it’s still rel­a­tively unclear why the seemingly pointless behavior sticks around. Tech­ni­cally speaking, spite is char­ac­ter­ized as paying a cost to harm another. It yields vir­tu­ally no pos­i­tive outcome for the per­pe­trator. So why would evolution—which is supposed to weed out such behaviors—let spite stick around?

Smead’s research, conducted in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Patrick Forber of Tufts Uni­ver­sity and recently published in the journal Pro­ceed­ings of the Royal Society B, sheds new light on this nefarious phenomenon.

A common means of studying social behaviors is through sim­pli­fied models and games. One of these is called the ultimatum game, in which a one player proposes a division of resources the other player can either accept or reject. Suppose each inter­ac­tion concerns the dis­tri­b­u­tion of 10 one-​​dollar bills. The first player could suggest that he take $5 for himself and give the remaining $5 to the second player. That would be a fair play.

However, that first player could also go for an unfair option in which he keeps $9 for himself and gives just $1 to the second player. While the second player is worse off if he rejects the proposal (he’s got ziltch in his pocket instead of $1), he almost always does so in real-​​world versions of the game: It’s just not fair.

But when Smead and his colleagues decided to sim­u­late this game math­e­mat­i­cally to see how it would play out, they found that in fact the exact opposite happens. Fairness usually gets flushed out of the system since it’s more ben­e­fi­cial for both the first player (the proposer) to suggest unfair offers and for the second player (the responder) to accept them.

“Evo­lu­tionary models don’t match what we’re observing in real life,” Smead said. Clearly, he thought, there must be something else going on.

In the new study, Smead and Forber con­sid­ered that the ultimatum game is actually quite unlike the real world. It’s an extremely sim­pli­fied sim­u­la­tion of one of infinite ways that two indi­vid­uals could act. The researchers couldn’t, for obvious reasons, make the game as complex and nuanced as real world social inter­ac­tions, but they could instead just add a little more nuance to it and see what happened.

So that’s what they did. In their new version of the game, the researchers introduced something called “neg­a­tive assortment.” Think of assortment as the like­li­hood that a person you’re interacting with is similar to you. In neg­a­tive assortment, that like­li­hood is low, so in the ultimatum game the players would likely use different strategies.

Here’s where spite comes back into play. If you and I both commit to just making fair offers, but my strategy is to accept all offers—be they fair or unfair—and yours is to accept only fair ones, we are different. A spiteful strategy would be to both make only unfair offers, but reject such offers when they come from the other person.

In the orig­inal ver­sion of the ulti­matum game, a spiteful player will usu­ally walk away with nothing and for­feit the game. But with neg­a­tive assort­ment, spite becomes common and actu­ally ends up pro­moting fair­ness. “Acting fairly protects you from spite,” Smead explained.

Think of it this way. A “gamesman” is someone who only makes unfair offers to ben­efit him­self but accepts what­ever comes his way because he believes it’ll all wash out in the end. “Gamesmen become a target for spite because they’re making unfair offers,” Smead said. The “spiters” will reject those offers, even­tu­ally killing off the gamesmen.

But fair players will now do quite well in the pres­ence of spite. Since they don’t make unfair offers, they don’t risk being rejected by the spiteful players. Fairness actually becomes a strategy for survival in this land of spite.

“Real social life is com­pli­cated,” Smead said. While his new version of the ultimatum game is still a sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, it illuminates another possible expla­na­tion for fair behavior that hadn’t been con­sid­ered before.

- By Angela Herring

 

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