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ScienceShot: Did Fairness Evolve From Spite?

11 February 2014 7:15 pm
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ScienceShot: Did Fairness Evolve From Spite?

Pearson Scott Foresman/Wikipedia Commons

It seems simple: People are more likely to cooperate if everyone plays fair. But a new study suggests that fairness itself arises from an unlikely source: spite. Researchers made a mathematical model based on the so-called ultimatum game. In it, two players are offered a reward, and the first player makes an offer for how it should be split up. If the second player agrees, then they divide it accordingly. But if the second player refuses, then neither gets the reward. As shown in the image above, depending on the interaction of the players, the outcome can be classified as altruism, cooperation, selfishness, or spite. Previous experiments have shown that, over multiple rounds of the game, a culture of cooperation evolves where everyone makes fair offers. But the new study, published online today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, finds that when players start out using multiple different strategies, by making fair or unfair offers, and rejecting or accepting unfair offers, some will act out of spite. These spiteful players deny the first player the reward at a cost to himself. The calculations further show that the antisocial behavior will eventually cause fairness to become the most successful option, because there is no reason to reject a fair offer. In essence, fairness evolves in spite of spite, when players start out using different strategies. Though they warn against generalizing to humans, the researchers point out that if fairness is the basis for a moral society, then paradoxically, spite may have played a role in the evolution of morality.

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