A Game Where Nice Guys Finish First

Researchers found that when it comes to building social networks, people much prefer someone who likes to cooperate over a person who looks out for himself

The kindness of strangers can pay dividends.
The kindness of strangers can pay dividends. Courtesy of Flickr user Ed Yourdon

It’s time again for the old “Naughty or Nice” meme.  It is, as we all know, the essence of Santa Claus’ annual performance review, and to his credit, he has kept things simple. (Personally, I prefer the more age-appropriate “Dyspeptic or Nice,” but, as yet, no one’s been able to work it into a holiday jingle.)

The conventional wisdom is that Nice is tanking. Spend 30 seconds reading comments on most websites and you’ll feel a need to delouse.  Or hear the latest spouting of spite from Capitol Hill and it’s hard not to believe that civility isn’t just dead, it’s mummified.

So it gives me great pleasure to share the news of one brief, shining study where Nice wins.

Harvard researchers Nicholas Christakis and David Rand set out to understand why humans cooperate, particularly when the alternative is often glorified as the road to riches. Usually, this kind of research is done in a lab where scientists are limited to observing the give-and-take within pairs of people.

But the scientists wanted to see how this would play out in a much larger social network, one involving hundreds of people. So they took the inventive step of setting up a game and recruiting players through a website called 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:

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?

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