moral sense

The Varieties of Altruistic Experiences

Altruism is a very heavily loaded word  in evolutionary psychology/ biology and I would not add to the confusion by defining the term myself. Suffice it to say , that I will use it in all of its various intuitive and theoretical usages.

The evolution of biological Altruism is generally considered as a challenge to Darwinian evolution and there are thought to be two main theories of how Altruism is possible or has evolved. These are Hamilton’s Kin-selection and inclusive fitness theory and Trivers’ Reciprocal Altruism theory, though some prominent people disagree that there are indeed two separate phenomenon at work and try to argue that they are one and the same phenomenon

I would argue instead that there are more varieties of Altruism than the above two- and that it may also be beneficial to decompose the phenomenon of kin selection and reciprocal altruism into their sub components and to to derive/ elucidate the proximate mechanisms that are involved in these phenomenon as opposed to a single-minded focus on the ultimate explanations of why and how such models can give rise to altruism.

To that effect I would like to separate the parental-investment and parent-child ‘kid-selection’ effects from other genetic relatives or ‘kin-selection’ effects. The reason I believe they are separate is because having a child or Kid involves bringing in a new relative with 0.5 relatedness in this world , so the cost to bring in to the parent can be very high as post facto (childbirth) the inclusive fitness becomes 1.5 +0.5b-c (cost) while earlier it was only 1.  Thus, the act can be undertaken if 0.5 +0.5b>c.  In the kin selection case however the inclusive fitness is 1-c +0.5+ 0.5*b after the altruistic act vis-a-vis 1.5 before the act ; so  the act can only be undertaken if 0.5b>c . the addition of a constant 0.5 to the first equation changes the dynamics to a large extent and thus my idea to keep the two phenomenon separate.

Also, reciprocal altruism can itself be broken into some differing phenomenons. The first phenomenon is generalized reciprocity (which is even found in rats , see also this) and others are direct, indirect and strong reciprocity. To summarize form an earlier post:

As per what is know about the evolution of Altruism, it is surmised that co-operation in groups emerges based on four types of reciprocity- direct, indirect, strong and generalized.

In direct reciprocity, one helps another person/animal because the other animal has helped oneself in the past. This requires cognitive capacities to recognize different individuals and require social memory as to which member of the group had helped and which had defected or free loafed. While some animals like the Elephant have good social memories and the ability to remember and recognize different individuals, most animals fall short on these traits.

In indirect reciprocity, one helps another because one has observed the other guy to have helped someone else. This again requires cognitive capacities to recognize and also to remember This is more so based on a reputation system, wherein you start trusting someone more if you observe him doing good deeds. In return you are likely to help the do-gooder , when he is in time of need.

In strong reciprocity, people punish the defectors or free-loafers or non-cooperators. This requires sophisticated cognitive abilities to recognize the defectors and a willingness to undergo cost to oneself while punishing the defector. This too, along with the above two, has rarely been observed in animals apart from humans.

Finally, generalized reciprocity happens when one indulges in good deeds towards a stranger just based on the fact that one has in the near future received such help from other strangers/ con specifics. There are variations on this theme, whereby if people have been put in a good mood (which is a substitute for having received a good deed) they are more likely to indulge in altruistic acts like picking up books dropped by a confederate. This type of reciprocity does not make very strong cognitive demands as one just has to remember the summary of whether the environment is cooperative or not, to produce the right kind of behavior.

So based on above I would like to differentiate between two clusters of reciprocity: Generalized reciprocity not requiring sophisticated cognitive mechanisms, but requiring global assumptions about the social environment; and strong, direct and indirect reciprocity – all involving sophisticated cognitive mechanisms but not dependent on assumptions about the global social environment.

With this I would now like to move to my main thesis. I argue that altruism is a social and group phenomenon and to understand all the proximal mechanisms that are involved in altruistic acts we have to appreciate the mechanisms and drives that lead to group formation, group cohesion and expansion and finally group thriving or differential success from other similar groups based on selection of members belonging to the group such that their is non-zero sum benefits of being in the group.

I would argue that all of the above can be understood in the eight stage framework, with the first three stages related to group formation; the next two related to investment in group (expanding or making it cohesive) and the last three related to populating the group with better individuals/ creating a suitable group that has maximum payoffs for all.

To start with , let us revisit the eight basic adaptive problems as elaborated here and here.

  1. The first problem to be solved ‘foe’ is also the first primary driver for the evolution of groups. Groups or herd evolve per se, because a solitary creature is more vulnerable to predation than as part of a group. This is how herding evolved. The proximate mechanism working at this level is that of merging with a group. 
  2. The second problem to be solved ‘food’ is the secondary driver for evolution of groups. It is envisaged that hunting/ gathering as part of a group leads to better  and bigger catches than are individually possible. this provides the incentive to work with other group members to hunt/ forage. This introduces the problem of who would eat the catch when one of them kills, but others are part of the raid party. The solution to the above problem is achieved using the mechanisms of sharing of the spoils. Thus, the proximate mechanism working at this level is a tendency to share the food / resources when begged for by those who are of the same band/ herd/ raiding party.  
  3. The third problem to be solved is ‘friends’ or con-specifics themselves. As all the group members  are competitors in the same niche, they have to learn to form alliances and co-operate in non-zero sum games with other partners when such co-operation does not entail a price and leads to mutual benefit.the example here would be that of grooming. A bird cannot remove lice from the top of its own head , but can do so easily if another friend removes the lice for her. This is a nonzero sum game. by co-operating both gain and nobody loses. The grooming can happen simultaneously so there is no reciprocity or memory involved. The proximate mechanism here is that of grooming or befriending (spending time with other just to make the alliance better).
  4. The fourth problem to be solved is that of ‘kids‘ and how to help those vulnerable, but related individuals. The kid-selection and parental investment concerns dominate here and lead to emergence of altruism directed towards ones offspring. Now the proximate mechanism devised to help in kid selection is that of care or empathy and this extends to all those who are sick,  vulnerable, infirm or unable to fend for themselves. The care ethic is born and is most visible in contexts where the mother-child or provider-infirm relationship can be activated. Help in rearing infants by related aunts etc is an example of this mechanisms.
  5. The fifth problem to be solved is that of ‘kin’ or all the other related individuals in the group. Kin selection comes into picture, but for it to work one has to properly identify ‘like’ people, who are likely to share genes. It is presumed that selection favored those who can judge likeness of phenotype from likeness of genotype and a a simplistic scenario could be that all the group members are considered as like and one tries to identify with them. This is as opposed to trying to differentiate from them and treating them as not-like. Thus, the proximate mechanism involved could be that of loyalty to the group and identification with the group as opposed to rebelliousness/ unconventionality/ differentiation from the group. The drive to find ‘like’ and ‘related’ individuals could easily lead to the ethic of community/ loyalty towards the self identified group. Also, forgiveness instinct towards those considered part of group and hence pertaining to valuable relationships that should be maintained despite small annoyances.
  6. The sixth problem to be solved is that of ‘selecting’ a partner/ partners with which one could indulge in altruistic games. Here the payoff to another would be at a cost to oneself and hence it is not a simple case of co-operation or mutualism in which both parties would benefit. Ideally, when partners have not been determined a priori and one has to discover the characteristics of the majority of the partners (or the population)  and at the same time not harm oneself by unconditional altruistic costs, the viable strategy would be to play with many diverse individuals and play using a generalized reciprocity scheme. At the end of many iterations, one can look at ones strategy and depending on how much altruistic or selfish it is, determine the characteristics of the population. This requires minimal cognitive demands as in not requiring the ability to remember individual interactions. In simple words this can be dubbed as Trust. You trust other people as you do not really know them, except in so far as they are part of the group and hence likely to have a majority group characteristic.  thus, a typical example would be ultimatum game. though the person with which you may playing may be stranger, you know a few things from your generalized reciprocity interactions with other individuals to know that majority of them are fair (make offers at 50 %) and also punish small splits. Thus, based on how you yourself have been given endowments in the past (and how others have rejected endowments given by you) you can reasonably play an ultimatum game with a stranger with same population wide results. Thus, the proximate mechanism here is that of Trusting others to be like the general population stereotype. thus, in humans, most of us are ‘altruistic’/ ‘good’ and hence we trust well rather than be suspicious.             
  7. The seventh task is that of seducing or attracting the right kind of partners so that the payoff the group, and hence yours, increases. Three separate mechanisms are at work here. Direct reciprocity harnesses our ability to remember individuals to pay them back in the future. Gratitude is the proximal mechanism that ensures that we do indeed pay back when time comes. Strong reciprocity ensures that we pay back, in another sense of the term, to the free-riders / defectors. By having punishment in the system one can ensure that the group is not overtaken by free-riders and defectors. The proximal mechanism active here is that of vengeance and not letting the culprits go off scot free. Indirect reciprocity on the other hand works on third party interactions and is based on respect , that is a generalized reputation of an agent to be ‘good’/’bad’ and acting towards them based on their reputations rather than their immediate behaviors. The proximate mechanism active here is respect/ authority. 
  8. The eighth task is to secure the group or keep the group well-knit and isolate form other ‘corrosive’ groups. One problem that poses a hurdle to group securing is unexpected payoffs (like war loot) and how they are handled by the group. They may be distributed to everyone equally, distributed as per a hierarchy or consumed by a few dominant individuals.Here the ethics of fairness and equality is the proximate mechanism that is used to settle matters. Another important factor here is not to let other group members infiltrate the successful group and subvert it from within. This gives rise to the ethic of purity and sanctity : the group is considered pure and sanctimonious and only other pure individual are allowed to join the group. The perverts within the group may be destroyed/ redeemed/ salvaged.                     

Thus, in my view, altruism involves all these proximal mechanisms: merging, sharing, grooming and befriending, caring, loyalty (identifying and forgiving), trusting; justice as in gratitude (positive justice),vengeance (negative justice) and respect (generalized justice); and finally the ethics of fairness/equality and purity /sanctity. Some of these can be easily mapped to Haidt’s five basic moral foundations.

In a follow-up post I will try to show how these eight altruistic proximate mechanism are reflected in personality traits especially with reference to HEXACO personality model to which one of my readers pointed me to.

The Five Moral Foundations

Jonathan Haidt studies Morality and he , with Joseph and Graham, has discovered what he calls the five major moral foundations or ethical areas of concern. A Steven Pinker article that is doing the rounds these days introduces these as follows :

The exact number of themes depends on whether you’re a lumper or a splitter, but Haidt counts five — harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity — and suggests that they are the primary colors of our moral sense. Not only do they keep reappearing in cross-cultural surveys, but each one tugs on the moral intuitions of people in our own culture. Haidt asks us to consider how much money someone would have to pay us to do hypothetical acts like the following:

In a Science Magazine article Haidt originally listed these scenarios as follows and requested that we do a though experiment as to how much money someone would need to give us to perform the following acts (the first act is relatively amoral, while the second presents a moral dilemma) :

Harm/care

  • Stick a pin into your palm.
  • Stick a pin into the palm of a child you don’t know.

Fairness/reciprocity

  • Accept a plasma screen television that a friend of yours wants to give you. You know that your friend got the television a year ago when the company that made it sent it, by mistake and at no charge, to your friend.
  • Accept a plasma screen television that a friend of yours wants to give you. You know that your friend bought the TV a year ago from a thief who had stolen it from a wealthy family.

Ingroup/loyalty

  • Say something slightly bad about your nation (which you don’t believe to be true) while calling in, anonymously, to a talk-radio show in your nation.
  • Say something slightly bad about your nation (which you don’t believe to be true) while calling in, anonymously, to a talk-radio show in a foreign nation.

Authority/respect

  • Slap a friend in the face (with his/her permission) as part of a comedy skit.
  • Slap your father in the face (with his permission) as part of a comedy skit.

Purity/sanctity

  • Attend a performance art piece in which the actors act like idiots for 30 min, including failing to solve simple problems and falling down repeatedly on stage.
  • Attend a performance art piece in which the actors act like animals for 30 min, including crawling around naked and urinating on stage.

As one can easily see from ones responses, the second of the set of questions appears to be morally reprehensible, though the category to which it belongs and the moral intuitions which guide our reaction to the underlying dilemma is different in each case. for the child-pricking-with-needle scenario we are focussed on harm avoidance and rely on empathy; while in the artists-running-naked we are more moved by our intuitions on what is aesthetically pure and sanctimonious.

Haidt also believes that these moral foundations have different evolutionary roots: while harm and fairness may rely on evolutionary mechanisms of kin selection and reciprocal altruism respectively, the other dimensions like ingroup/ loyalty may be due to group selection acting at group levels. The other foundations like respect for authority and desire for purity may have their own evolutionary mechanisms:

If I asked you to define morality, you’d probably say it has something to do with how people ought to treat each other. Nearly every research program in moral psychology has focused on one of two aspects of interpersonal treatment: (i) harm, care, and altruism (people are vulnerable and often need protection) or (ii) fairness, reciprocity, and justice (people have rights to certain resources or kinds of treatment). These two topics bear a striking match to the two evolutionary mechanisms of kin selection (which presumably made us sensitive to the suffering and needs of close kin) and reciprocal altruism (which presumably made us exquisitely sensitive to who deserves what). However, if group selection did reshape human morality, then there might be a kind of tribal overlay (—a coevolved set of cultural practices and moral intuitions—that are not about how to treat other individuals but about how to be a part of a group, especially a group that is competing with other groups.

In my cross-cultural research, I have found that the moral domain of educated Westerners is narrower—more focused on harm and fairness—than it is elsewhere. Extending a theory from cultural psychologist Richard Shweder, Jesse Graham, Craig Joseph, and I have suggested that there are five psychological foundations, each with a separate evolutionary origin, upon which human cultures construct their moral communities . In addition to the harm and fairness foundations, there are also widespread intuitions about ingroup-outgroup dynamics and the importance of loyalty; there are intuitions about authority and the importance of respect and obedience; and there are intuitions about bodily and spiritual purity and the importance of living in a sanctified rather than a carnal way. And it’s not just members of traditional societies who draw on all five foundations; even within Western societies, we consistently find an ideological effect in which religious and cultural conservatives value and rely upon all five foundations, whereas liberals value and rely upon the harm and fairness foundations primarily.

To me, these five moral foundations fit beautifully with the five factor models that I have been considering. Harm being more physically rooted, fairness/ justice more subjectively rooted; ingroup/ loyalty more rooted in interactions between group members; respect/authority more socially rooted; while purity/sanctity more individualistically rooted.

Also this framework is broadly compatible with Kohlberg’s moral development theory, with harm based reasoning predominating at stage I and so on. To elaborate:

  1. Stage 1 thinking is marked by Obedience and Punishment Orientation. This orientation clearly relies on Harm based reasoning to discern morality of acts- whether harm is caused by the cats and whether the results (including punishment ) would be harmful.
  2. Stage 2 thinking is marked by Individualism and Exchange. This exchange mentality is typical of those advocating reciprocal altruism or those who emphasize fairness and the golden rule.
  3. Stage 3 thinking is marked by Good Interpersonal Relationships. this reasoning is marked by emphasis on good relationships within a ingroup and loyalty to it and all its members.
  4. Stage 4 thinking is marked by Maintaining the Social Order. Here respect of authority is clearly evidenced as one wants to respect the authority inherent in the social order.
  5. Stage 5 thinking is marked by Social Contract and Individual Rights . Here the purity/ sanctity dimension is more prominent and one focuses on the purity, sanctity and inalienability of human rights. These rights are sort of divine.

I am excited to see how these five major moral foundations could still be under evolutionary selection and thus, we may not even be aware of the processes by which the later stage mechanisms work. While the evolutionary earlier kin selection and reciprocal altruism are well understood, we are still evolving the other traits and hence no clear mathematics for that yet in place- hence we are baffled by group selection or deny that other dimensions like purity/sanctity have anything to inform on moral matters. That may just be due to the fact that western morality is still not developed to higher stages of Morality as compared to other civilizations (or for that matters liberals less developed than conservatives? ). I am sure that there would be three more qualitatively different moral foundations taking the eventual number to eight moral foundations, but we must first appreciate the five moral foundations better before we move up and broaden the moral horizons.

Lastly let me briefly mention the relationship of these five major foundations to emotions. It has been found in studies that people respond with disgust (expressions) when confronted with an immoral act belonging to purity/sanctity dimension. They respond with contempt if they witness moral transgressions in respect/ ingroup dimensions and react with anger while witnessing transgressions of harm/ justice dimension. Thus, we may even relate these five moral foundations with the primary affects. But that is food for a later post!

Fairness in your genes?

I recently came across an economist article that pointed to me three new studies regarding fairness, patience and their genetic and evolutionary footprints.

From one of the studies, conducted by Wallace it al, a counterintuitive result is obtained- that a sense of fairness (as measured by propensity to share and reject low offers in the ultimatum game) is very much heritable with Monozygotic twins showing a positive correlation between their propensities to respond in the ultimatum game as compared to Dizygotic twins, who show no such correlation. This seems to strongly support the view that our sense of Altruism (dependent on our willingness to punish free-loaders) and fairness is genetic to a large extent. with the evolutionary explanations of Altruism depending heavily on the punishment arguments, it is not so surprising to find that a sense of fairness is indeed genetic in nature; but for many culture enthusiasts, this would come as a blow to their view that Altruism did not evolve, but is a product of uniquely human endeavor called culture.

Another article looks at the sense of fairness itself , again using the ultimatum game, and compares between humans and chimps. while it is well-know that humans have a snese of fairness and thus make equitable offers and reject low offers, no data on chimps was available till now. It seems Chimps are more rational and unemotional than humans!

To find out if chimpanzees share this sense of fairness, Keith Jensen and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, designed a way for chimps to play the ultimatum game. Their version started with a pair of trays far from the players’ cages. Each tray had ten raisins divided in different ways between two pots—say eight and two, or five and five. One chimp was allotted the role of proposer. He could choose one of the trays, pulling it by way of a rope just halfway to the cage. The other, the responder, could then choose to pull on a rod, bringing the tray close enough for both to get the raisins, one pot for each. If the responder chose not to pull the tray closer within a minute, the offer was considered rejected, and the game concluded.

The result, which Dr Jensen reports in Science, is that chimps are simply rational maximisers—Pan economicus, if you like. Though proposers consistently chose the highest possible number of raisins for themselves, responders rarely rejected even the stingiest offers.

I would like to see the same replicated with bonobos. Do they too lack a sense of fairness and whatever co-operation has been observed in them simply a result of free-sex-trade?

The third article actually looked at difference between patience and fairness in chimps and humans and gain came to a very counter-intuitive results. Chimps can be more patient than humans and delay gratification at more occasions than humans. Clearly their sense of prospection is better developed than Humans (which I doubt) , or they are unemotional and hence lack the normal human dread of waiting for a result of something (even positive). In any case some really important results and papers.

True Lies: More thoughts on Autism and Schizophrenia

There is a fantastical article by Simon Baron-Cohen about how autistic children are more honest than the rest of us and how the neurotypical human brain is characterized by an ability to deceive.

As we all know, Autistic children have troubles with meta-representation, or believing that there could be two versions of reality- one that is factually correct, and which they themselves may hold; and another that is incorrect, but exists in the mind of another human being. Thus, they may not have any problem with knowing some fact about the world, but are greatly disadvantaged when it comes to knowing facts about other people’s mind- as they cannot conceive that somebody can have beliefs that are different from the Reality- in other words that someone has ‘false beliefs’.

As per Simon, the capacity to deceive involves the ability to know that one can have false beliefs; and also that one can manipulate the beliefs of another person, so that the person ends up with a false belief. I doubt whether the first ability is necessarily compromised in people with Autism. After all, they themselves may have had false beliefs about the world (say thinking that sun revolves around the earth) and thus may similarly conjecture that others can also have false beliefs. The trouble may lie elsewhere- they may lack the ability to discern that whatever beliefs they have (whether true or false), the other person might not necessarily have the same beliefs. That is they may confuse their own beliefs with that of another and would not have a higher level meta-representation, that someone can have a different belief set. Thus, the trouble is not with having beliefs- but with the ability to say and understand that “I believe that john believes this”. They may not comprehend such a sentence or thought- as it is superfluous in their world, where their beliefs are consistent with Reality (or are false) and the other person’s beliefs also being consistent with Reality are one and the same. Thus they never require , or are able to use, this recursive ability. I believe this deficit in recursive ability may to some extent explain their language difficulties too. coming back to point, as they themselves cannot comprehend that “I believe john believes X.”, so also they are unable to comprehend that ‘john believes I believe X”. thus, in their innocent and simplistic world, their is no room for either manipulating others via deception; nor of not trusting and always being on their guard against what someone says or does. Thus, they would take sentences at their face value.

I came across this article via The Thinking Blog and there Mary makes some interesting points about whether all deception is bad and all honesty is good; and I concur fully with her that sometimes deception is needed and can be put to good purpose and sometimes truth is not desirable or even moral as per the situation. What is more instrumental is the motive with which the truth or lie is chosen. Thus, I personally am of the opinion that we do need an ability to deceive, but the character to keep the trait in check and to put in good use only.

Simon also makes a point that we treat Autistic traits like honesty as traits on a continuum and not as deficits and I agree with him there too. He treats the normal , social brain as the extreme end of the this trait on which the autistic are the other end; and here I differ. I have already made some strong cases for Schizophrenia to be at the other end; and I would like to support that position by drawing on Simon’s analysis.

If we believe that one trait that Autistic lack is deception and meta-representation or ability to read minds, then the Schizophrenics are bound to be too good at it (as per my thinking they are two ends of a creativity spectrum).

  • The Schizophrenics may use so much meta-representation (thinking that goes ‘I think he thinks that I think that Mary thinks ….’) that they may not only get confused, but sound disoriented and disorganized as they may assume too much about what the other person believes. Much of the incoherence in a psychotic speech may be due to too much of shared context – or too much of’ he-knows-what-she-knows-that-I-know’ sort of thinking. Also keeping multiple perspectives or belief sets may tax their normal working memory capacities, making them sound incoherent.
  • Also as opposed to Autistics , who think people do not have an ability to mind-read- as they themselves lack it- the Schizophrenics may be marked by an increased propensity to consider that people can mind read and that too to a very great extent. This may underlie the frequently found delusion in schizophrenia that their thoughts are being broadcasted– that other can read their mind–or at least they want to read their minds using Gizmo’s like satellites, headphones etc. The schizophrenic, after all, knows the advantages that can be obtained if one can mind read.
  • In its extreme, as the Schizophrenics have too much obsession with mind reading abilities- and the corollary ability to deceive- , they may think that people , in general, are deceptive and manipulators. This may explain why other people would like to insert thoughts or tamper with their thoughts/ memories etc. This may easily give rise to delusions of control.
  • the ability and propensity to deceive, would also explain the paranoia they feel- after all in their warped world view , all, like them, have immense capacity to deceive/ manipulate- and thus is a potential threat- an untrustable person. This gives rise to the paranoid delusions of schizophrenia.
  • Lastly, the obsession of schizophrenics with modeling other minds may lead to multiple personality syndrome (although I know this is not recognized by Psychiatry).

I , like Mary, am not taking sides on whether naive honesty is better or tendency to deceive/camouflage is better; I believe both have their utilities and one should be flexible enough to use both capacities at will. But as we know that much of Human evolution is driven by our capacity to deceive , I would classify schizophrenia as the cost we pay for human Evolution; and Autism as a developmental disorder- We humans are meant to be social and are meant to hide all our raw feelings/ beliefs / thoughts from other persons. Let us deceive, but let us keep that in check- or else be prepared for insanity.

The Altruistic Mice: how they help a conspecific in a trap.

According to latest research by Claudia Rutte and Michael Taborsky , of the Univ of Berne, Switzerland, rats are capable of generalized reciprocity. The excellent paper is published in the freely available journal PLOS biology, so go have a look.

As per what is know about the evolution of Altruism, it is surmised that co-operation in groups emerges based on four types of reciprocity- direct, indirect, strong and generalized.

In direct reciprocity, one helps another person/animal because the other animal has helped oneself in the past. This requires cognitive capacities to recognize different individuals and require social memory as to which member of the group had helped and which had defected or free loafed. While some animals like the Elephant have good social memories and the ability to remember and recognize different individuals, most animals fall short on these traits.

In indirect reciprocity, one helps another because one has observed the other guy to have helped someone else. This again requires cognitive capacities to recognize and also to remember This is more so based ona reputation system, wherein you start trusting someone more if you observe him doing good deeds. In return you are likely to help the do-gooder , when he is in time of need.

In strong reciprocity, people punish the defectors or free-loafers or non-cooperators. This requires sophisticated cognitive abilities to recognize the defectors and a willingness to undergo cost to oneself while punishing the defector. this too, along with the above two, has rarely been observed in animals apart from humans.

Finally, generalized reciprocity happens when one indulges in good deeds towards a stranger juts based on the fact that one has in the near future received such help from other strangers. con specifics. There are variations on this theme, whereby if people have been put in a good mood (which is a substitute for having received a good deed) they are more likely to indulge in altruistic acts like picking up books dropped by a confederate. This type pf reciprocity does not make very strong cognitive demands as one just has to remember the summary of whether the environment is cooperative or not, to produce the right kind of behavior.

The authors, using some clever experiments demonstrate that rats are capable of generalized reciprocity.

In a nutshell (I’m simplifying a lot here, for details go read the paper), they put two rats in a cage, separated by a transparent partition, such that if one of the rats pulls a string, food would be delivered to the other rat. They ensure that rats learn how to pull the strings and are able to see that their action leads to food for the other rat.

In the experiment, they pair rats such that one rat, who can receive the food but cannot pull the string, is paired with a number of rats who have learned to pull the string. As a aresulkt the rat gets to get a lot of food over consecutive days because of the fact that her partner rat had pulled the string. Thse partner rats ar eall different. In the experimental test condition, the roles are reversed and the focal mice, who had received food due to some stranger rats pulling the strings, is now given an opportunity to pull the string and help a never-before-encountered rat. The result: the mice does pull the string a lot of the times to help the new partner.

In the other experimental condition, the same rat is put in the cage, wherein he can get the food if the second rat pulls the sting. this time too all the rats are new: but sadly for the focal rat, these stranger rats were never trained to pull a string. The result: they never pull the string, so the rat does not receive any food. This is also repeated for a number of days and then the roles are reversed. Now, a new stranger rat is placed in the cage with the focal rat, such that if the focal rat pulls the string, the new stranger rat would get the food. Alas, the lack of pulling of strings by the previous stranger rats makes the focal rat apathetic and she pulls the string less frequently and less enthusiastically. The difference is as huge as 20 % greater pulling when one had received help, compared to when one had not received help.

This seals the argument as per authors, that the rats are indeed capable of generalized reciprocity. They interaction between rats as as between strangers and hence the only reason that explains the difference in string pulling, in received-help versus not-received help is the fact that in former they were in a o-operative environment, while in the latter they were not. thus, their actions were based on generalized help they received from conspecifics and not based on any memories of who helped whom. this to me appears to be breakthrough paper and would lead to a reassessment of how altruism evolved.

The authors also discuss a lot of other possible explanations , and I come satisfied that the generalized reciprocity is the best one.

The author summary is provided below:

The evolution of cooperation is based on four general mechanisms: mutualism, where an action benefits all partners directly; kin selection, where related individuals are supported; “green beard” altruism that is based on a genetic correlation between altruism genes and respective markers; and reciprocal altruism, where helpful acts are contingent upon the likelihood of getting help in return. The latter mechanism is intriguing because it is prone to exploitation. In theory, reciprocal altruism may evolve by direct, indirect, “strong,” and generalized reciprocity. Apart from direct reciprocity, where individuals base their behavior towards a partner on that partner’s previous behavior towards themselves, and which works under only highly restrictive conditions, no other mechanism for reciprocity has been demonstrated among conspecifics in nonhuman animals. Here, we tested the propensity of wild-type Norway rats to help unknown conspecifics in response to help received from other unknown partners in an instrumental cooperative task. Anonymous receipt of help increased their propensity to help by more than 20%, revealing that nonhuman animals may indeed show generalized reciprocity. This mechanism causes altruistic behavior by previous social experience irrespective of partner identity. Generalized reciprocity is hence much simpler and therefore more likely to be important in nature than other reciprocity mechanisms.

The NYT also has an article on this and you may like to check that too.

Go to Top