The myth of selfishness: Part 3 – A new gift economy


If society is in tune with human proclivities it works better, because people enjoy what they do. You only have to look at small boys playing “hunting”, or notice the difference between the incentives necessary to get people to sit in an office shuffling papers compared with those required to get people to dance and flirt in a nightclub. For one people want a salary package with health benefits and all sorts of signals as to their status and importance, but for the other they’ll pay you and wait in a demeaning line under the watchful eye of a big heavy thug first. People have evolved to like doing the things which made hunter gatherer bands so enormously successful that the human species spread worldwide in a few hundred thousand years and became dominant in every ecology. In terms of culture that involved elaborate systems of bonding and kinship which created tightly interdependent societies. We had long term relationships with one another, reinforced by economic transactions, because we liked to, and we liked to because that economic interdependence was a successful strategy for survival.

I think you can take this idea quite a lot further so long as you understand that there are competing and overlapping interests and survival strategies, and they are encoded as conflicting proclivities. Which ones predominate depends on the circumstances. I imagine the year the whole tribe starved it was the selfish guy who hoarded food who survived. That’s a strong evolutionary pressure because he was one of only few who continued the genetic line. But most years he did a bit worse than the others, because he was considered selfish, not traded with as often, and less likely to find a mate. By the way punishing people who “game” the system to the detriment of others has been well recorded by evolutionary biologists, but it still happens in proportion related to the advantage gained and the chance of being caught.

So humans are selfish, but they’re also altruistic, particularly when it reinforces social bonds to be so. Altruism is rewarded with respect and status because it benefits the whole group. [thanks Nick] Such feelings towards a person who is altruistic have been selected for in our hunter gatherer past, but you can see the caveats right there too. Someone who is too showy about their selflessness is eyed with suspicion because they may be cheating. We respect our saints but we like them humble. On the flipside we’ll use the selfish strategy if the payoff is big, but we’re nervous about being seen as selfish and we tend to be magnanimous about the small things as a cover.

It’s a fascinating lens through which to view human behaviour, but I don’t want to go into every detail. Instead I want to find a way to use it to design a system which is good for the modern world. It’s like wild dogs. They hunt in ways which require certain skills, and they’re very good at those things. You can’t train a dog to be a pig, but you can train a dog to be the pack member who signalled to the others where the prey had gone to ground (pointer) or the pack member who kept most of the prey in a tight bunch while cutting out the weakest to be chased down (that’s a sheepdog).

Capitalism has enormous advantages over traditional systems. It’s very flexible and quick to adapt to new conditions. It “evolves” solutions to difficult problems by withdrawing attention (money) from the methods which fail. It encourages individual freedom and a pluralist society. Most of all it engages the human need for status and security and locks it into overdrive at all times. There’s always someone with more “stuff”. There’s always another rung on the corporate ladder or a more prestigious job which could be sought. In other words it makes people greedy – partly from insecurity, partly from alienation, and partly from desire. It’s a loop, too, because having stuff we aren’t at some level sure we fairly deserve is a cause of more fear and alienation.

Of course that’s both a good and a bad thing. The village blacksmith couldn’t put in a rotating horse feeder and a big sign on the highway to attract more business, because his business was with the people he and his family had served back before anyone can remember. But when a (slightly shady) businessman friend of mine made his first million and I said Ok, Z. have you got enough now? his reply was

I want to earn more than P., in Hong Kong. And you remember that Austrian guy? He makes ten times what I do and I need to find out how.

Not everyone buys the whole ball of wax, but to the extent that people do they’re like the selfish guy who hoarded all the food. He was doing very well that winter but he didn’t sleep soundly at night because he knew his strategy had endangered the social ties which kept him safe. It’s a high risk high gain approach and the more people take it up the more the tribe becomes just a bunch of individuals.

Which is pretty much where we’re at. Actually there’s a lot of altruism around, though, because it’s built into us at a deep level and most of it’s social reinforcements are innate even though they’re weakened. Bill Gates gets more respect than Donald Trump – neither is sexy but Gates scores points for his foundation. Capitalism works well economically, at least on average and if you ignore the environmental damage, but it has a social cost. People like an enduring sense of community. They like the opportunity to be unselfish. Because these things work in the direction of human instinct they’re satisfying, but processes work against them – especially the fear-greed cycle and material possessions are so important to status.

The first part of the solution therefore involves improving the reputation benefit of unselfish acts, providing good opportunities to engage in such behaviour, and extending the timescale of relationships so that reciprocal obligation becomes more important. The second thing to notice is that people do, really, enjoy contributing to something which they feel is worthwhile and likely to make the world a better place. There is real altruism. Pleasure pathways light up in the brain when we do something which helps another being – we’re actually built like that. For that reason the other important factor is that the outcome of the altruistic behaviour should be a genuine benefit to a person who needs it or a contribution which makes the world a better place.

As an example think of open source software. People donate their time and energy for free. They do so for the challenge, the experience, and the fun, and out of genuine altruism without hope of reward, but they also do so for the status it gives. Someone who has worked on the FreeBSD project seems not only technically adept but selfless and idealistic. Such a person has an advantage in a job interview, but that’s the least important aspect. It’s a thing analogous to “street cred” – the person has a reputation within the community who are interested in such things. For each person the reasons for contributing to open source are different, and I’m not accusing developers of chasing fame. Rather I’m pointing out that the “respect” motivation can be used to encourage beneficial social patterns. There are reasons the open source reputation system works. Developers interact on mailing lists and forums over a long period of time. These communities value skill and helpfulness. The products created by these projects are widely used and the developers held in regard by the user community.

This model can be developed a lot further, both within a particular region and worldwide via the internet. It requires certain factors in order to be successful – a social network which encourages long-lasting relationships, and an egalitarian open-ended opportunity to contribute which uses the community and reputation within the community to reward contribution. Finally it requires a genuinely worthwhile goal. Think Newsvine. Think of a suburban community garden in which the produce is used to supply a homeless shelter. These things take drive and a bit of sensitivity to get started, and they don’t last forever, but they are of great benefit to the lives of both the people who contribute to them and the people who make use of the result. Such projects are a potentially important part of the social infrastructure, they’re not expensive and they grow best organically and of their own accord.

Much of what I’ve called the greed – fear cycle comes from loneliness, a result of broken and shallow communities, and apathy, which is a result of the prevailing media culture of helplessness and poor self esteem. Look at a “women’s magazine”. It’s full of pictures of airbrushed unreal people in expensive unreal clothes. It’s designed to make normal people feel ugly and unfashionable, and it’s designed this way very much on purpose. In this insecure and low-status frame of mind, the reader feels a need to “have stuff” to restore prestige, and the magazine helpfully advertises the very stuff which will fix the problem. I know that’s a gross oversimplification, but in various more subtle forms it’s the foundation of the consumer culture.

There is no answer within this cycle, but by temporarily ignoring it and contributing unselfishly to a worthwhile community project the whole greed-fear thing becomes irrelevant. Satisfaction, self esteem, and a sense of purpose emerge unlooked-for. As more people take this path and paths like it, the west I believe can be gradually turned from narcissism, self destruction, and short term materialism towards a connection with heart and environment.

It’s worth a try.

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