Universal Ethics > Thought of the Month > July 2019

Personality traits such as kindness among individuals are not fixed, but can be affected by how the social world is organized. By giving people choice of their associates or colleagues, cooperation is encouraged.

From Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, by Nicholas Christakis...

Describing an experiment that he conducted using online participants:

"In one key experiment, involving seven hundred and eighty-five people arrayed in fourty groups... each participant was assigned to have between one and six social connections, emulating what is known about the number of ties people have in real life. And everyone in the group had a different set of neighbors than the others in their group."

"Our goal was to develop a situation that re-created the challenges of producing public goods--items that people work cooperatively to fashion and that are of mutual benefit, like lighthouses or wells. Everyone has to pitch in and make a sacrifice in order to create something that helps the whole group, including each individual, and that repays each person more than he or she contributed."

"In our experiment, participants were given chits that would be converted into real cash at the end of the game. The game was played in multiple rounds. In each round, participants were told they could either keep their money or make a donation to their neighbors. If they made a donation to their neighbors, we would double the money their neighbors received. They would pay a small price, but their neighbors would get a bigger benefit. Since many rounds of this game were played, a potential norm of reciprocity was set up: if you were generous to your neighbor in this round, your neighbor might be generous to you in the next. If so, you could reciprocate again, and you would both benefit repeatedly over time."

"Of course, the best outcome from a selfish point of view would be for you not to contribute to your neighbors and for them to give money to you. Why not let everyone else build that lighthouse if you can benefit without helping out? But if everyone did that, the group would collapse acrimoniously. Everyone would stop cooperating, and no noe would support the creation and maintenance of public goods."

"And that is what our experiments confirmed. When people were assigned to their initial social connections, they usually began by being generous and cooperating with those other people. Yet sometimes, their newly assigned 'friends' would not contribute to them (technically, they are called defectors). People did not like being exploited by the defectors. Since participants were not allowed to change their initial connections, if their neighbors defected, then all they could do to avoid being abused was to defect themselves (that is, stop being generous). In this branch of the experiment, we found that defection took over the societies we created. In the rigid (and leaderless) social worlds where subjects did not have any control over whom they interacted with (and thus were trapped with a group of friends we assigned to them), people stopped cooperating."

"However, in a different branch of the experiment involving other groups of subjects, we allowed people to exercise some control over whom they interacted with. During each round of the game, in addition to choosing whether to cooperate or defect, they could also choose with whom to make or break ties. Understandably, subjects chose to form ties with nice, cooperative people and to break ties with mean, defecting people. Allowing a certain amount of fluidity in social ties and some control over friendship choice made all the difference. Cooperation persisted in these societies, and people were nice to one another. We also found that the cooperative people wound up forming cliques, flocking together to avoid intransigent, exploitative neighbors. In short, even the possibility of being able to change social connections can shape communities for the better."

"People often think that personality traits such as kindness are fixed. But our research with groups suggests something quite different: the tendency to be altruistic or exploitative may depend heavily on how the social world is organized."

From Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, by Nicholas Christakis.
New York: Little, Brown Spark, 2019
P104-106


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