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Anger plays a key role in human cooperation.
January 9, 2002 12:39 PM   Subscribe

Anger plays a key role in human cooperation. And not only that, anger is altruistic! The link covers a behavioral experiment probing individual versus group benefits, freeloading, punishment and altruism.
posted by NortonDC (9 comments total)

This is a potentially interesting study. It suggests all sorts of questions about emotion and perceptions of fairness in settings in which the payout is structurally unequal (e.g People receive different proportions of the payouts based on rank, but everyone gets something).

It should be noted that the study found a link between anger and the perception of free-riding. It suggests, very weakly, that anger plays a role in cooperation. I think that the limitation is the interpretive dimension to the exit-interviews. Notice that it was in the interviews that people expressed their anger—"Punishing" the free-riders (freeloaders?) didn't depend on a display of anger towards the person. So this is not a clear example of using anger help people cooperate.

I can draw an counterexample from my own work. People in certain Melanesian communities are very sensitive to agressive or angry expression in language. They place a high social cost on being angry, and using angry words. The reason, it seems, is that there are only two solutions to being angry when one is wronged: violence or leave the group. Being angry often leads to group fission. So this emotional display is draws negative social sanction.

Some alternate titles for article: "Righteous indignation based on sense of right"; "Sense of fairness based on what is not fair"

It's also worth pointing out that a great number of people have and continue to object to the representation of people using social services as "freeloaders." So the far-flung analogy between this experiment and welfare reform is invalid on its face.
posted by rschram at 1:24 PM on January 9, 2002

Interesting idea. The experiment seems a bit limited, though, and they could probably stand to do more research. The original article (much longer), from Nature, is here, by the way.

Anger and punishment are not the only forces causing cooperation, though. The Gnutella network can be seen as a similar "experiment." Sharing files gains nothing for the person who does it while costing them resources such as bandwidth and cpu cycles. Everything is more or less anonymous, though, so "punishment" of free-loaders is not possible. And yet people share files (and not just the ones who don't know they're sharing).

There are plenty of other examples of altruism occuring without any threat of punishment. This is an interesting theory, but certainly only part of the puzzle.
posted by whatnotever at 1:37 PM on January 9, 2002

Unfortunately he philosopher Derek Parfit's The Prisoner's Dilemma is not online( it's a British Academy pamphlet) but here are some links to this now classic problem which provide a framework for the linked article(I too wish it were not so short).
posted by MiguelCardoso at 1:44 PM on January 9, 2002

(Just a footnote: the Prisoner's Dilemma" was originally described by John Von Neumann.)
posted by Steven Den Beste at 2:12 PM on January 9, 2002

It's an interesting experiment, not sure it really proves or disproves anything though.

There are lot of issues involved in this... trust, selfishness, honesty, risk vs. reward, playing the system, etc.

In the short term, with no punishment, the results of *not* investing range from +0 to +24 MUs, whereas the results of investing range from -12 to 12 MUs. If you continue to *not* invest, as the trust of the group and the amount of their investments decrease, you will *still* not lose anything.

With punishment and loss of anonymity, that is no longer the case. A non-investor is likely to lose money every round.

I don't see the punishment as "altruism" so much as a different kind of investment...
posted by Foosnark at 2:29 PM on January 9, 2002

sounds like MidasMulligan's debate strategy :)
posted by kliuless at 7:43 PM on January 9, 2002

Good addition, whatnotever. Thanks.
posted by NortonDC at 5:50 AM on January 10, 2002

Hmm, we trumped Slashdot.
posted by NortonDC at 6:54 AM on January 10, 2002

the discussion over there is better :)

i was just thinking about freeloading in terms of metafilter. technically, we're all freeloaders in the absolute sense of the bandwidth we avail ourselves. it's a measurable cost to mr. haughey. but the thing is you can't put a price on our contributions (esp. if you're not a lurker :) and the reason you can't put a price on it is because opinions aren't readily commodifiable. hence they're generally inside the realm of non-market transactions cuz you really can't guarantee the conditions of value and utility it's so subjective.

even further tho, discussion sites like metafilter lie outside the realm of public goods. the services it offers (at least interaction, not viewing) are excludable and rival. it's possible to ban people and although the economic costs of a single user are low, it does marginally affect the experience of other users. like my use may diminish your use. depending of course on my behaviour it may also augment your use! which is where the "threat" of social sanction lies, where we each determine the levels of acceptable conduct against the "social cost" of doing whatever.

so anyway, in this technology mediated world of ours it just so happens that the economic costs are outweighed by the social benefits, which allows these new and novel forms of interaction!
posted by kliuless at 10:27 AM on January 10, 2002

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