Altruistic by Nature
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An interesting NY Times article got me thinking about one of the big questions that anyone who studies cooperation eventually has to deal with: is pro-social behavior innate? Is the natural inclination of human beings to cooperate, to be altruistic, to consider other people's outcomes and act accordingly? Or are we wired to be selfish, and to look out for our own interests at the expense of others?

Well, obviously it's a complex question. One of the things that makes it so interesting is the presence of drastically opposing views. Much of economics is driven by the idea that human beings are innately rational, self-interested, maximizing people. Economic models traditionally assume that we all look out for number one, and we do it as often and to the highest degree that we can. From one evolutionary view this makes sense. Survival requires that we look out for our own welfare. Only the strong survive, right?

Well, not really. As soon as human beings became social creatures, self-interest may have given way to cooperation in our genetic code. By ourselves self-interest can lead to survival. As soon as social groupings became advantageous, though, cooperative behavior may have been the best strategy. The aforementioned NY Times article, We May Be Born With the Urge to Help reviews some research showing evidence of helping behavior even in very small children. This is important because if we see evidence of this in kids so young that they haven't had a chance to learn or experience social norms of helping or to develop situational awareness, then that suggests that we're hard-wired to be altruistic. Right?

Well, like any absolute assertion in a complex situation, in this case I think the answer is inevitably yes and no, right and wrong, both and neither. As tempting as it is to make blanket claims about "the way we are," in any social phenomenon we have to consider the power of situations. I believe there are probably genetic bases for both types of behaviors: self-interest and pro-sociality. But it's most likely the situation, and patterns of situations over time, that elicit one type of behavior or the other in any given case. An idea gaining credence in many circles is epigenetics. The idea is basically that exposure to our environments can inhibit or suppress the expression of certain genes. So, whereas our genetic code was once thought to be static, epigenetics suggests it can adapt, and in doing so sort of smash nature and nurture into one. The upshot of epigenetics when it comes to the self-interested/pro-social question is pretty ground-shaking too. What if we're hardwired for both self-interest and pro-sociality when we're born, but as we develop it's not just social norms that influence our behavior, but also the environmentally-influenced expression of certain genetic traits? How's that for complicating things?

Obviously we're just scratching the surface here. And full disclosure, I'm no expert on the biological stuff. For a review of the research on altruism (which, it has to be noted, is only one type of pro-social behavior), I recommend:

Piliavin, Jane Allyn, and Hong-Wen Charng. 1990. “Altruism: A Review of Recent Theory and Research.” Annual Review of Sociology 16:27-65.

What's great about this review is that it debunks the all-too-common assertion that what looks like altruism is actually self-interest in disguise. Economists who looked at the world and saw how common pro-social behavior was had to come up with some explanation, after all. Piliavin and colleagues synthesize the literature masterfully from a social psychology point of view.

Recent Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom does something similar from a primarily economic point of view:

Ostrom, Elinor. 1998. “A Behavioral Approach to the Rational Choice Theory of Collective Action: Presidential Address, American Political Science Association, 1997.” The American Political Science Review 92:1-22.