Altruism is traditionally defined as: “behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species.” So here’s a simple question: why would anyone be altruistic?
One answer has to do with our relatives. Sociobiology suggests that all living creatures share one fundamental goal: to propagate our genes into future generations. Of course, the most direct way to propagate our genes is to reproduce.
But we can also propagate our genes by supporting our genetic relatives. So I might behave altruistically toward my sister because she shares much of my genome. If she reproduces successfully (and her children do as well), then some of my genetic heritage is passed on to future generations. So it pays to be nice to my sister. (It took me a long time to figure this out).
But why would anyone be altruistic toward someone who is not a genetic relative? According to Steven Arnocky’s recent paper in the British Journal of Psychology it has to do with another fundamental human drive: sex.
You may recall that competition for sex is a key element in maintaining the overall health of a species. When there is a fair amount of competition among males, females are remarkably good at picking out the best mates. What does “best” mean in this sense? The best men for producing healthy offspring who can in turn produce healthy offspring of their own.
So how do females know which males will produce the best offspring? Some of it is physical. For instance, females strongly prefer males who are symmetric rather than asymmetric. Being symmetric is, apparently, a good marker of genetic health.
Behavior also plays a role. We know, for instance, that creativity plays a strong role in mate selection – for both men and women. Ornamental creativity is especially attractive. Strictly speaking, ornamental creativity is not essential to survival. So those who display this trait are effectively advertising “I have more than enough to survive plus some left over for ornamentation. I have an abundance of what you want.”
According to Arnocky’s paper, non-kin altruism plays a similar role to creativity. It’s a behavior that is desirable to the opposite sex. The study used two different methods to measure altruism and then correlated the degree of altruism with sexual activity. Those who scored higher on altruism, “…reported having more sex partners, more casual sex partners, and having sex more often within relationships.” The correlation was stronger for men than women, suggesting that altruism is more important for women selecting men than for men selecting women.
In an interview, Arnocky summed up the results by noting that, “”It appears that altruism evolved in our species, in part, because it serves as a signal of other underlying desirable qualities, which helps individuals reproduce.”
Based on Arnocky’s findings, we may have been defining altruism improperly. The classic definition says that altruism doesn’t benefit the individual but does benefit the species. But Arnocky’s paper points out a very direct benefit to the individual – better mates and more of them. Given this, we need to re-phrase our initial question. It probably should be: why wouldn’t everyone be altruistic?
In October 2013, a Boulder, Colorado man took some half million dollars out of savings, converted it to gold and silver bars and threw them in a dumpster. What would account for such behavior? Spite. After a bitter divorce, the man didn’t want his ex-wife to get any of the money.
Spite has a long history. As Natalie Angier points out, spite is the driving force behind the Iliad. Achilles wants revenge on Agamemnon, even though it will be very painful to Achilles as well.
Spite is similar to altruism but with a different purpose. An altruistic person pays a personal price to do something helpful to another person. A spiteful person pays a personal price to do something hurtful to another person.
Spitefulness sometimes feels good. You’re getting even; you’re teaching the other person a lesson. But it rarely does any good. Does the other person really learn a lesson – other than to despise you? With spite, both parties lose. So, why does spitefulness stick around?
It could be a form of altruistic punishment. Altruism isn’t always positive for everyone concerned. You might punish somebody — and pay a price to do so — in order to bring a greater good to a larger community. In this sense, altruistic punishment is simply spite for the greater good.
A study by Karla Hoff in 2008 used a “trust game” to probe this phenomenon. In the game, trusting players can earn more money by giving away money. But a “free rider” (also known as an opportunist) could take advantage of the trusting player, hoard the money, and come out ahead. The game uses an “enforcer’ who can choose multiple options, including various punishments for the free rider.
Punishing the opportunist costs the enforcer. Still, in many cases enforcers decided to do just that. By spiting the free rider, the enforcer adds a cost to anti-social behavior. As opportunism become more costly, it also becomes less pervasive. Ultimately the enforcer’s spite encourages cooperation. It’s good for the community even though it hurts the enforcer. (This was a complex study and altruistic punishment varied by culture and by the social status of the various players).
More recently, Rory Smead and Patrick Forber used an “ultimatum game” to study spite and fairness. In some versions of the game, “gamesmen” emerge who make only unfair offers. Other players will spite the gamesman. Even though they pay a cost in the short run, fair players who spite the gamesman can benefit in the long run. Indeed, “Fairness actually becomes a strategy for survival in this land of spite.”
How do you measure spitefulness? David Marcus and his colleagues have developed a 17-point Spitefulness Scale “…to assess individual differences in spitefulness.” They then applied it across a large random sample of college students and adults. They found (among many other things) that men are generally more spiteful than women and young people are more spiteful than older people. Spitefulness is positively correlated with aggression and narcissism but negatively correlated to self-esteem. The researchers are now going to use the scale to predict how different players will act in trust and ultimatum games.
I’ve previously written about seemingly “good things” that produce bad outcomes. Spite is a good example of a “bad thing” that can produce good outcomes. Not always and not in all situations, but more often than we might guess. It’s useful to keep in mind that, if something exists, it often does so for a good reason.