Random Thoughts

Greed, Revenge, Malice, Behavior

and the Banality of Evil

Economists and anthropologists devised an ultimatum game to test people of various cultures. The results and the analysis of experiments on two tribes is from Duncan J. Watts book, “Everything Is Obvious Once You Know The Answer” with my own additional analysis and conjectures. 
The game is simple. The researcher picks two persons and gives one of them a sum of money, say one hundred dollars. It is left entirely to the first recipient how much of that sum is to be given to the second person who is informed about the exact amount of money disbursed. The second person has the veto of deciding whether to accept the amount chosen to give by the first recipient or refuse it. If the second person refuses, the first person also gets nothing and the researcher reclaims all the money.

It is important to understand that none of the two recipients deserve the bonanza and are expected to do anything in return.  The book gives some of the results of the game in pre-industrial societies and developed societies from the papers by Heinrich et al and Camerer et al on Behavioral Economics.

Subjects in the Machiguenga tribe of Peru generally offered about a quarter of the total sum to the second person and most second persons accepted the offer without rejections. In the Au and Gnau tribes of Papua, New Guinea, the first subjects tended to make offers to the second which were better than half, but even those were refused to the same degree as smaller offers. We know that if a similar game was played with American bankers and Wall Streeters, the offer to the second person may have been the shaft. On the other hand in the potlach culture of the Pacific Northwest Indians, the entire amount may have been offered (see my article on The Golden Mongoose). The whole thing boils down to what a given society or culture determines what is fair, obligatory or generous.

Peruvian Machiguenga society is at the level of loyalty restricted to immediate family only with no expectations of benign behavior from unrelated tribesmen or strangers. Thus unaccustomed to such a free gift they had no precedent to analyze it and no concept of the power of their veto. In the case of Golden Mongoose story or Pashtunwali, the principle is a guest is a god or even an enemy seeking shelter cannot be refused and must be protected at all costs. In the American neoliberal fundamental market capitalism with regulatory capture and a revolving door between government and capitalists, the principle is socialism for the rich and jungle Darwinism for the weak, like Paul Ryan’s plan to gut medicare and Social security instead of fixing them by increased taxes (more but not entirely on the rich) and some rationing by consensus and cost effective analysis. For the potlach Indians of the Pacific Northwest a century ago, one’s reputation and status in society depended not on wealth but on generosity of how much of it was given away. For the tribes of Papua, there was already an established custom of gifts with a strict customary obligation of reciprocity and thus many offers including the over-generous ones were refused as they set up an obligation to return the favor, a commitment that the second recipient was unwilling to commit to. It is reminiscent of the changing system of Indian wedding “chandlo” where elaborate records are kept by the receiving family of who gave how much and the same amount returned as a gift on the wedding occasion of the giving family. Papua type refusals now have begun to crop up in wedding invitations in India where it is explicitly stated no gifts please at the wedding reception, thus avoiding the obligation of reciprocity.

Kahnemann, a psychologist received the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002 for the work he did with Tversky and the speciality of behavioral economics took off. A game theory type of analysis as in “The Prisoners’ Dilemma” and Nash Equilibrium (a mathematician who won the Nobel Prize for Economics), tells the second contestant that the undeserved bonanza to the first recipient has to be equally shared or he will veto the bonanza totally. The second contestant could have gotten something for nothing but he was unwilling to be duped or shortchanged. He went for what is called the Samson Option by Israeli strategists. It is blind Samson asking Delilah to position him at arms length on either side from the two main supporting pillars of the temple of the Philistines, so he could move the pillars and bring the house down killing himself, but also the amassed Philistines. The current Israeli prime minister despite his name, is “Not-a-Yahoo”. He just wants to bring both the Palestinian and American house down while expanding his occupation of conquered and usurped territories in defiance of the world, with the help of his Congressional slaves and as collateral damage deservedly humiliate foolish Obama. 

Another name for this strategy is the “Forced Error Of Suttee”. By a stupid Indian tradition of the past, a widow had to be burnt alive on her dead husband’s funeral pyre, so to cow and terrorize his wife, a cruel husband could always threaten his wife into submission by saying he would commit suicide. The custom of Suttee is gone but the life of widows, some of them after unconsummated childhood marriages as shown in the movie “Water” still persists. The above two examples of Samson and  chauvinist husbands are no more about fairness, obligation or generosity, but about revenge.
Matt Ridley in his book on “The Origins Of Virtue” takes a variation of Cosmides and Tooby’s modification of Wason’s Test which is interesting.

An economist and an anthropologist were relaxing with drinks with their Polynesian host, Big Chief Kiku who always insisted that his followers had to tattoo their face, when four hungry strangers walked in and asked for food. The autocratic chief said,”If you tattoo your face, you will be fed a cassava root”. The strangers and chief left and the two scholars debated with the economist wanting to know whether the Chief would keep his word while the anthropologist wanting to know if the Chief would be generous. Next morning they asked the Chief who informed them, “The first stranger got a tattoo, the second had nothing to eat, the third did not get a tattoo and I gave a cassava root to the fourth”. He told the scholars to ask only the minimum relevant questions and if they failed they would be tattooed. Stanford undergraduates did well on the economist’s question but poorly on the anthropologist’s questions.
Readers are challenged to participate. The economist was only interested in whether the chief cheated and the anthropologist only whether the chief was generous. The reason for Stanford undergraduate performance is that as social animals our brains have evolved modules to detect cheating and this required our brains to evolve sufficient memory to remember it and deter it by punishment making revenge a sweet dish even if it is cold due to ten years of delayed anticipation of killing Osama Bin Laden. Nevertheless, only a blindly unreasonable person or a lying manipulator is likely to confuse it with justice. Revenge gives personal satisfaction and serves as a deterrent to those who do us a bad turn. Indirectly it fosters more co-operative and considerate behavior.

Its problem is that it reinforces and promotes hate, animosity and even malice, as in the Badla of Pashtunwali and of the Hartfields and McCoys. The Arabian Nights story of the bottled genie comes to mind in how an oppressed person frustrated by what is perceived as injustice, then vows to be unjust even to his benefactor. The genie hoping for freedom resolves first to grant three wishes to the one who frees him. With time the wine of gratitude ferments further to the acid of vinegar and after a few thousand years of incarceration he vows to kill the one who frees him for the good deed. Thus many repeatedly abused children grow up to be psychopathic criminals. So it is not surprising that those who have in the past suffered a holocaust over time want to indulge in one towards others.
One has to pay tribute to the perceptive analysis of Hannah Arendt about the banality of evil when she found Adolph Eichmann and many Nazis quite like any ordinary person. We all have our Mr. Hyde lurking in us, mostly in the form of hidden buds ready to blossom, which allow us to deprive native tribes of their land in America or India, enslave darker people as slaves or untouchables, overlook the atrocities in Central and South America, Philippines, Cuba, Middle East, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Central, West and South Africa, Israel, Gaza, West Bank, Soviet Union or its break-up nations, China and elsewhere. If the oppressed look, talk or worship differently from us and especially if we need some scapegoats for our own faulty or desirable government, life, behavior or religion, then as attributed to Drexel Burnham Lambert and Enron traders,“Screw them, what are friends for?”.   


More by :  Gaurang Bhatt, MD

Top | Random Thoughts

Views: 3371      Comments: 4

Comment I chiefly intend my comments to be read by you. I did not say it was your aim to alienate your readers, but that a complicated verbal presentation has that effect, which is proved, surely, in the zero response you are disappointed by.

03-Jun-2011 06:28 AM

Comment To rda, If the aim of my writing is to alienate readers, my regret is that I am not succeeding in keeping you away. I cannot deny that you have shortened the paragraph, but there is no increased clarity. Anyway the meaning of both paragraphs is clear and obvious and if you did not volunteer a solution to the problem, I can understand a natural human tendency to criticize the framing of the problem to avoid confessing one's inability to solve it. You are at liberty to post as you wish consistent with the website policy, but from now onwards I will just ignore your posts and not waste my time.

gaurang bhatt

gaurang bhatt
02-Jun-2011 13:30 PM

Comment I think your problem, sir, is in compounding a cerebral issue further with unnecessarily complicated grammar, which has become your writing style, alienating readers, who blame themselves for being completely bamboozled. Compare the two passages below, the first a quote from your article; the second on how it could be made more accessible for mere mortal consumption:

>The game is simple. The researcher picks two persons and gives one of them a sum of money, say one hundred dollars. It is left entirely to the first recipient how much of that sum is to be given to the second person who is informed about the exact amount of money disbursed. The second person has the veto of deciding whether to accept the amount chosen to give by the first recipient or refuse it. If the second person refuses, the first person also gets nothing and the researcher reclaims all the money.<

The game is simple. The rearcher picks two people, and gives one of them a hundred dollars. It is left to the recipient to decide how much he wants to give to the second person, who is made aware of the arrangement. The latter can decide whether to accept or refuse a specific amount chosen by the former, which If he refuses, the researcher can reclaim the hundred dollars.

02-Jun-2011 05:45 AM

Comment I am disappointed that no reader chose to be interactive and attempt the problem of the questions which the economist (interested in knowing whether the chief fulfilled his word and did not cheat) and the anthropologist (wanting to know if the chief was generous) asked.

The answers are
1) the economist asked whether the first stranger was given a cassava root, since he got the tattoo and whether the second stranger did or didn't get a tattoo. Since he was not fed, if he had gotten a tattoo and was not fed, the chief would have cheated him.
2) the anthropologist was interested only whether the chief was generous and his blustering bully visage was just a show. He asked whether the third stranger got a cassava root (he did not get a tattoo, so if he was given a reward it showed the chief's generosity) and if the fourth stranger got a tattoo? (he was given a cassava root and if he got it without getting a tattoo, it also proved the chief was generous)
3) The brain ability to detect cheating and to remember who cheated us is something which has evolved to be strong in human beings, but the the appreciation of generosity and the memory thereof are weak and evanescent. That is why to err is human and to forgive divine, but what have you done for me lately is the basis of social life and exchange and not charity or control (see my article "Indras & Indriyas")

Gaurang Bhatt

gaurang bhatt
01-Jun-2011 08:16 AM

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