Hierarchy, altruism and gender

I wish I had more time to look at all this stuff, which is very suggestive of interesting things.  I have a proposal for you, micro-economic reform has been basically right in trying to make markets more competitive, but it’s done some serious damage along the way, and one way of making the point is that as information flows and risk sharing become more important, as they have been becoming, things like intrinsic motivation, the minimisation of invidious arrangements which can undermine basic notions of doing the right thing come at a huge cost.  I suspect that financial bonuses for public servants – at least those providing policy advice fit into this category.  As do sales commissions for people providing financial advice. Anyway, I could go on – but won’t.     

From Stumbling and Mumbling

Hierarchy can crowd out altruism. Thats the message of this new paper by Luigi Bosco. 
He got groups of people to play series of dictator and ultimatum games, in which one person offers another a division of a pot of money. 

In one set of groups, prize money from the games was split equally. In another set, the individual who accrued most money was allowed to decide how the prize money was to be distributed in other games.
Mr Bosco found that players in the second set made significantly less generous offers in the games. That suggests that competition for power – the ability to decide how others (not oneself) get paid – can make people more selfish and  less altruistic.
There are at least three implications here:

1. In some contexts, traditional motives – money and power – might be counterproductive; we should read this paper alongside research (pdf) by Kathleen Vohs which has found that merely thinking about money can make people more selfish. In organizations where there is a big pay-off to co-operation – such as from sharing information, kicking around ideas or mentoring others – hierarchy and financial motivation might reduce efficiency.
2. Institutions shape character – they have the power to make us more or less selfish. This suggests that the costs and benefits of institutional design are large. Could it be that business managers and politicians over-rate the importance of policy, relative to that of institutional design?
3. When offered the competition for power, men became more selfish than women. This corroborates other research, showing that there are gender differences in how people play tournaments. The glass ceiling might exist, in part, therefore because contests for status in a hierarchy favours masculine qualities.  This in turn suggests that feminists especially should be sceptical about the merits of hierarchy and competition for power.

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Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
15 years ago

Like you, I wish I had more time to look into it.

He starts the paper saying that “selfish individuals cohabit with other-regarding ones”. He is talking about two kinds of people.

He demonstrates a difference between men and women which is, I think, well known in game theory. Now this difference is a different way of thinking and we might expect that, like saying men are taller than women, there will be plenty of exceptions. So we are dealing with two (or more) ways of thinking and not with sex. Tallness is easy to identify but what is the character of this difference?

A clue is on page 14 (I have only skim read it) which reverts back to the opening remark. He says:

The higher the degree of agreement with the statement “If a person is poor, this is often the result of a lack of effort on their part” the lower the percentage of the sum that subjects leave to the receiver in the dictator game.

So there are two kinds of people. The terms selfish and other-regarding are scientifically unsatisfactory as one is pejorative. We could call them hard and soft: those who agree with that statement about the poor, and those who disagree. Back on page 4 he identifies two kinds of altruism, the unconditional and the conditional which I would posit characterise the soft and hard people respectively.

Because I do not have time to read it in detail I don’t know to what extent he follows through with these two kinds but what I do think is game experimenters should be testing people with statements like the one about whose fault it is if you are poor and showing that it is not really a division between men and women; it is a division between hard and soft (and maybe more categories).

Yes, altruism and selfishness will be affected by the particular institutional arrangement but they will also be affected by the nature of the person, a nature that, like tallness, it would be possible to measure. I’d suggest, though, that unlike tallness, it does not conform to a normal curve but is a double bulge, ie genuinely two kinds of mentality.