New study throws (dragon) shade on Chicago economists.

Chicago School of Economics and Game of Thrones

Chicago School of Economics

Most people, except psychopaths, consider the harm done to others more carefully than any harm done to themselves when making decisions that benefit themselves, according to a recent report.

We thought this was interesting because the Chicago School of economics*, the basis for much policy and law, is premised on people acting rationally in their own self interest. “Rationally” means without emotion, and based purely on costs and benefits. Therefore, the economists say, the interests of another is at most of equal value to our own interests.

We discuss in a more macro context, in view of the Game of Thrones.

The paper:

Crockett, M.J. Kurth-Nelson, Z. Siegel, J.Z. Dayan, P., and Dolan, R.J., “Harm to others outweighs harm to self in moral decision making,”Published online before print November 17, 2014, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1408988111

We liked this paper first of all because of the tee-up in the introduction: How do people consider the suffering of others in the context of economic exchange (less important), empathy (less or equally as important), or harm-avoidance (potentially more important).

The paper even quotes Adam Smith in saying that the Tonya Harding approach** is the most self-harmful:

. . . . In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith argues that the ‘indelible stain’ of guilt is worse than pain: ‘For one man … unjustly to promote his own advantage by the loss or disadvantage of another, is more contrary to nature, than death, than poverty, than pain, than all the misfortunes which can affect him’ . . .

The study design eliminated confounding factors found in other game-theory tests by measuring subjective analysis of one’s determination when inflicting pain on another. The study was a money-pain test, in that subjects could receive money and/or pain, in the form of an electric shock. The shocks were individually calibrated, so that each individual would feel pain to their own subjective level, at least within the ethical review board limits.

Here’s the test:  Donors and recipients are chosen at random.  You (a donor) have £10. You get to keep this £10 if you shock yourself 7 times. Or, you have £15. You get to keep this £15 if you shock yourself 10 times.

Or, you get to keep the £10 or £15 if you shock a random anonymous person (recipient), who would get no money. If you abstain, the default position is 7 or 10 shocks. There was anonymity, and no accountability/punishment for any decision.

This is diagrammed below:

Crockett et al. Figure 1

Bottom line:  people decided to avoid shocks to the anonymous other even when this resulted in (a) less money for themselves, or (b) comparatively more shocks to themselves.  And, subjects took extra time to decide where another would be harmed. So, people do value the harm they do to others more than the harm they inflict on themselves.

The authors also note that psychopaths put themselves first, with no hesitation. They did not value harm to others more than harm to themselves, and made quick decisions even when others would be harmed. Not surprising, we think — naturally, those who see others as non-persons will be unconcerned with their harm.

Yet, some argue that this is the psychopath get-out-of-jail-free mitigating circumstance:  because psychopaths see others as non-persons, the harm that they do must be judged in that context. Is it wrong to hurt a chair? No. And so, because psychopaths see others as non-persons, they should be less culpable than very empathetic people who do feel the pain of others, and hurt them anyway. (Levy N. Psychopaths and blame: The argument from content. Philosophical Psychology 2014;27(3):351-367. doi:10.1080/09515089.2012.729485. ) So, if you have empathy, you get punished more for hurting others, than a cold-blooded remorseless psychopath.

We disagree generally. One purpose of imprisonment is rehabilitation (so they say). Psychopathy is a biological condition. So traditional methods of rehabilitation to attempt to evoke empathy are likely to fail. We do, however, note the inconsistency in permitting other biological factors (like low intelligence or young age) to be mitigating, where psychopathy is a biological condition as well.

The authors of the present report cogitate over reasons why people see their harm to others as more important than harm to themselves. One reason is that people err on the side of caution — they are uncertain of the pain-threshold of others. So, even when they know the pain level they themselves can take — say 10 shocks — they don’t want to administer that to another because maybe the other is particularly sensitive to pain, or has an unstable heart, or some other eggshell-skull type of situation.

Whether this is empathetic/altruistic concern, or avoidance of the Adam-Smith-moral-sentiment of a bad feeling of “guilt,” we don’t know. (Cf., here, a paper about egoistic rather than altruistic empathy.) And we think it probably doesn’t matter. Empathy and guilt are on the same biological connectivity track, so where you have one, you probably have the other.

So, all those laws and policy based on “rational” self interest are rooted in some fictional human behavior dreamed up by Chicago economists. At least, in a micro-, interpersonal environment.

Yet, in a mega-macro-view, maybe it is all rational self interest. Perhaps Chicago school — rational self interest — particularly applies when governing for a large population.(See, Game Theory).

So we wonder about in-group/out-group subjective analysis.  Intergroup emotions theory posits that when social categorization is salient, individuals feel the same emotions as others who share their group membership.

Although the present study assured anonymity, the subjects still knew, or at least suspected, that they were all some way involved with the University. Could the study subjects be basing their harm-avoidance on the egoistic rationale that everyone was a member of the same in-group, so maybe one day they would date?  A hypothetical conversation:

“I was in a study today for the psychology department, and got £50 for our date tonight!”

“£50? I was in that study. The only way you could get that kind of money was if you shocked everyone maximally! You are a monster, goodbye.”

If this study was done, say, online, using individuals from unknown groups, would the harm-avoidance be the same? Or what if, say, the study was done between two rival universities?

Put another way, depersonalizing the out-group would lead to de-valuiing harm inflicted, we suspect. Consider ISIS, and the dark-ages, medieval horrors they inflict. Among themselves, they are avoiding harm and benefiting their in-group (we surmise, oversimplifying the underlying geopolitical implications). Yet, how can one not be horrified by the harm inflicted on their identified out-groups (the West, OPEC members, we’re not sure all the out groups)?

Consider financial institutions: each individual pension manager had no intent to harm, say, a California retired teacher. They probably wanted to earn money for their own in-group — the financial services company (as well as themselves and their families). Any harm to an individual teacher is not considered at all. (But, perhaps these money managers are psychopaths, which is a possibility.)

On an even mega-macro scale, what about civilizations? History is filled the conquering and the vanquished, civilizations that have staying power tend to be those whose rulers practice harm avoidance to those whom they conquer. This may be the rational-self-interest that Chicago contemplates.  We’re no serious student of history, so we’ll just refer to Game of Thrones, which is sort of a distillation of historical epics. Plus dragons. 

In the Game of Thrones, every time there is out-group empathy (harm avoidance), there is a massacre. (See, Red Wedding.)

The one exception is the Mother of Dragons, Daernerys Targaryen, who releases slaves, empowers the conquered, and instills loyalty over those she rules.

You have a good claim: a title, a birthright. But you have something more than that: you may cover it up and deny it, but you have a gentle heart. You would be not only respected and feared, you would be loved. Someone who can rule and should rule. Centuries come and go without a person like that coming into the world. There are times that I look at you, and I still can’t believe you’re real.
―Ser Jorah Mormont to Daenerys Targaryen (via Game of Thrones Wiki)

So even though Daernerys Targaryen values harm-avoidance in order to conquer territories and instill loyalty, it is for her own self interest, at least in part. She knows that this instills loyalty and the love of her people. They then help her conquer more territory and advance toward retaking her crown.

Well, plus she had dragons, just in case.


*We’ve been complaining about this for a long time, e.g., here, maybe because we constantly added emotion as a variable in our grad school tests, and got downgraded. Our personal gripe that we’ve clung to for far too long.

**Because some of those who succeed in hierarchies tend to be those who, at least in part, promote “his own advantage by the loss or disadvantage of another,” that sort of leaves the leaders of organizations as those who feel no “indelible stain” of guilt.