My friend Jermont has been hounding me to watch a video from the Princeton Public Lecture Series.  Okay, maybe hounded is too strong a word.  Let’s just say he sent me the link along with a nudge to watch it three times.  As I previously opined, this post is proof that nagging works.

You’d probably guess from the book Freakanomics that Steven Levitt is an engaging and fun speaker.  The fact he talks about his “research” on prostitutes probably doesn’t hurt either.  What really fascinated me was his theory about altruism.  To understand his theory, you first have to have a little economics background, which he lays out in his seminar.  The gist of it goes like this:

  1. For years, researchers had test subjects play the Dictator game.  Basically, one subject is given $10 and told he or she can either keep it or share some of it with the other subject.  Pure economic theory would predict the subjects would protect their own interests and keep all the money.  But, on average, subjects gave somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 to the other subject, leading many economists to believe that people were fundamentally altruistic.  There was much rejoicing.
  2. Levitt approaches one of the researchers performing this kind of work, John List, and notes, “Hey, that’s neat.  But no one has ever come up to  me on the subway and given me $3.  If people are fundamentally altruistic, how can this be?”  List then devises a tweak to the experiment, where subjects can either keep the money, share it, or steal some amount from the other subject.  You wouldn’t think this would fundamentally alter the results of the experiment.  After all, if people are fundamentally altruistic, surely they won’t steal from the other participant, will they? The answer is yes and no.  Those who previously shared their money now gave the other person nothing.  The cheap bastards who didn’t share anything before were apparently now emboldened to actually steal.

Levitt explains these results as a kind of lab artifact.  In the first case, participants are being asked to share with someone watching (and perhaps worse, a clipboard noting responses).  Those who value an altruistic self-image are thus encouraged to share.  In the second case, the range of acceptable behavior is widened by adding the stealing option.  Participants may rationalize that because they aren’t stealing when given the option, giving nothing is pretty good by comparison.  This certainly explains why no one is handing out money to strangers on the subway, but does it satisfactorily explain the person who feeds the meter for a stranger’s car? What about those who risk their life to save others from a horrific traffic accident or burning house?  Is that just people trying to pad their self-image too?

I’m willing to say yes, but not in the negative way Levitt connotes with the words “self-image.”  It sounds selfish, doesn’t it, and isn’t that what economists said before the Dictator game debunk anyway?  But remember we are whoever we make ourselves to be, after all.  We’re all fighting the lizard brain, as Seth Godin reminds us, and some are more effective at it than others.  For all of us, some days are easier than other days.  I know I want to be more altruistic, that I privately beat myself up for not making more time for community service when I am so fortunate to have a stable life and loving family.  Is altruism a part of my self-image?  Gosh, I hope so.

Perhaps the more interesting research is the work being done to understand sacred values, as explained in this Scientific American article:

When people are asked to trade their sacred values for values considered to be secular—what psychologist Philip Tetlock refers to as a “taboo tradeoff”—they exhibit moral outrage, express anger and disgust, become increasingly inflexible in negotiations, and display an insensitivity to a strict cost-benefit analysis of the exchange. What’s more, when people receive monetary offers for relinquishing a sacred value, they display a particularly striking irrationality. Not only are people unwilling to compromise sacred values for money—contrary to classic economic theory’s assumption that financial incentives motivate behavior—but the inclusion of money in an offer produces a backfire effect such that people become even less likely to give up their sacred values compared to when an offer does not include money.

Whether or not they go to church, for some altruism is a sacred value.  What I find hopeful is that society in general seems to be putting more emphasis on community service, perhaps making it more likely to rise to the level of a sacred value initially through peer pressure, which can later become more intrinsic.  This still won’t lead to people handing out money on the subway.  Levitt, who appears to have a great deal of common sense, ought to know that a sense of fairness is likely the cause, not a lack of altruism.  Perhaps Levitt should tweak his own experiment and ask someone for money.  Take, for example, the case of a journalist posing as a panhandler who managed to earn $200 in a single day.

All I know is that doing nice things for other people makes me feel good in turn.  I’m sure Levitt’s prostitute could put a price on that, but it seems unnecessary.  I say let your self-image show, and may it be as beautiful as your epidermis.