As I continue to post entries on this year’s outstanding children’s titles, I digress a moment, drawing attention to an article in yesterday’s New York Times. The piece by Matt Richtel and Julie Bosman is very much consonant with the spirit of this blog. Print books, the Times reporters point out, may constitute an increasingly beleaguered cultural commodit//www.mturk.com/mturk/welcome">Mechanical Turk–an online job pool created by Amazon to allow developers and businesses to hire people to perform tasks that can’t yet be handled by machines.
With about 800 recruits on board, the researchers let the games begin. Every player started with an equal number of points, and was randomly connected with one or more players. Each would have the opportunity to be either generous, and give 50 points to every player they were connected with, or be selfish and do nothing. Then, after each round, about one-third of them had the opportunity to change their connections if they wanted.
It didn’t take long for the selfish players to take their toll on games involving people who weren’t allowed to select their partners. After a dozen rounds, only 10 to 20 percent of the players were willing to give points to anyone else. It was classic “tit for tat” behavior, which is at the heart of both a well-known game theory and analysis of how cooperation fits into the evolution story.
Ah, but the generous players became very popular among those who were able to change their connections. People tended to gravitate to them and shun the ones who seemed to be looking out for themselves. And eventually most of the uncooperative players had a change of heart once they realized they’d become social pariahs.
In short, the study showed that if you let people rewire their social networks, they’ll seek out unselfish connections. Or, in an affront to high school football coaches everywhere, nice guys finished first.
Wired to be nice
While we’re on the subject of nice, it turns out there’s a gene for that. Actually, it’s more of a genetic variation, but one that results in higher levels of oxytocin, the so-called “cuddle chemical” which makes us more trusting, empathetic and generous.
A new study found that observers could pick out the most empathetic people after watching only 20 seconds of silent video of them interacting with a loved one. And the majority of the 10 people rated most trustworthy, based on their body language, had that genetic variation. An even higher percentage of the 10 people considered the least empathetic didn’t.
So yes, some people are just born nice.
Here’s other recent research into why we do the things we do:
- The dark side of creative: A study published by the American Psychological Association concluded that creative people are more likely to cheat than less creative people, in part because they’re better at rationalizing their less than honorable behavior.
- When bad things happen to bad puppets: Infants, even those less than a year old, like to see bad behavior punished. In a study by American and Canadian scientists, babies most liked puppets that punished other puppets that behaved badly.
- What tipped them off? A peer-reviewed paper suggests that today’s financial institutions, with their high rate of turnover and expanding global power, are attracting people who have a hard time feeling empathy.
- Burritos on the brain: Male college students do not think about sex all day. In fact, new research found that they think about food almost as often.
Bonus Video: Economist Paul Zak riffs on how training our brains to release oxytocin can get us in the holiday spirit.
Today’s question: Could you imagine winning a game by being cooperative?