The “resurrection” of this blog isn’t coming along as fast as I want to. Partly it’s because the bulk of my attention is going to Da Russophile and RossPress right now, but partly it’s just plain bad luck. Not the best year for me health-wise. Just as I was getting back into the grove of things, my skis decided to give way on a large jump and planted my face onto icy snow. I’d say that on balance (something I haven’t had a lot of since then HAR-HAR) concussions are better than panic attacks, but not by much.
Anyway the flip side is that I’ve been doing a lot of reading out of lack of anything better to do while resting, and one of the books I’ve been reading is Steven Pinker’s massive door-stopper The Better Angels of Our Nature. Incidentally, I found it a very interesting read with tons of cool factoids, although it could have done with a third of its text and a tiny fraction of its liberal sanctimonious. But that’s for the forthcoming review; in this post, I will focus instead on a reference I found there to a very fascinating and revealing paper about Antisocial Punishment Across Cultures (Herrmann et al.) – and by extension, its implications for social cohesion.
Power summary: The shrinks got a bunch of university students, divided them into teams of four, and got them to play a “public goods game.” They were given 20 tokens at the start of each of ten rounds, and they were told they could invest any number of them into a pot, with a return of 0.4 tokens to each player – regardless of whether or not he participates – to each token invested in the pot. So if everyone was to contribute all 20 of their tokens, each player would walk away with 32 tokens; on the other hand, if only two players were to contribute all their tokens while the other two got a free ride, the altruists would walk away with only 16 tokens, whereas the free riders would get their 16 tokens plus their original 20 which they had kept back.
In this version of the game, there were no interesting patterns; across all cultures, contributions plummeted as free riders enjoying impunity undermined the morale of productive contributors. However, that’s not how the game works in real societies, which actively punish many forms of free riding: Tax evasion, benefit fraud, dodging fares on public transport, etc. The game was then modified to include a punishment option, in which any player could choose to spend one token to remove three tokens from any other player of his choosing. The results changed drastically.