Sunday, February 21, 2010

Conscience Assumptions

The best way to design any social program or incentive scheme, I think, is to start off with the assumption that no-one has a conscience. If history is anything to go by, most humans have very malleable morals, which is hardly surprising if you're a moral skeptic.

Consider this recent example of study loan fraud. Note how "to each according to his need" becomes very problematic very quickly.


  1. Science Shows That Markets Make People Fairer

    "Are people innately fair-minded or is it learned behavior? A fascinating new study, ... is being published today in the journal Science "


    Quote from the press release:

    "Members of large-scale, complex human societies have learned to play nice with strangers through the norms that are associated with market participation and world religions, and not solely due to an evolved psychology for cooperation in small groups as previously believed, according to UBC-led research.

    In a paper to appear in the March 19 issue of Science, lead author Joe Henrich and a 13-member research team explore the evolutionary underpinnings of human societies.

    Fifteen years in the making, the study combines two major, comparative cross-cultural projects that examine how motivations for fairness and punishment influence economic decisions, and how these motivations relate to variables that differ across societies, such as community size, adherence to a world religion and market dependence and exchange.

    "Our results contradict previous theories that humans learned to treat strangers fairly by transferring behaviour and norms developed in their actions and attitudes toward family and kin," says Prof. Henrich, an anthropologist who holds the Canada Research Chair in Culture, Cognition and Coevolution and teaches in the UBC Departments of Psychology and Economics. "

    Press release link:

    Although I'm sure Simon at Amaneusis would have something to say about the validity of a study that draws inferences about people from money that was given to them rather than money that was earned.

  2. Ha ha, Galen, indeed I would. Nevertheless, I am a massive fan of Jo Henrich's (and his horde of co-authors) work and it forms a strong base for what I'll be doing in my dissertation. You should take a look at some of their earlier papers - 2001, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009 - if you get the chance (email me simon.d.halliday{at} and I can send them to you).

  3. Oh, and a separate thing which Henrich et al. show is the effect of more market integration and market norms for already integrated societies. I'm not convinced that highlighting the role of the market at the other extreme of integration makes people more cooperative, moral, etc. Consider the Gordon Gekko of 'Wall Street' and his 'Greed is Good'. I think the relationship is probably non-linear, with maximal cooperation somewhere between the extremes (though I don't know where it would be and I suspect that optimal cooperation with market integration would be culturally contingent).