Nautilus

Selfishness Is Learned

Many people cheat on taxes—no mystery there. But many people don’t, even if they wouldn’t be caught—now, that’s weird. Or is it? Psychologists are deeply perplexed by human moral behavior, because it often doesn’t seem to make any logical sense. You might think that we should just be grateful for it. But if we could understand these seemingly irrational acts, perhaps we could encourage more of them.

It’s not as though people haven’t been trying to fathom our moral instincts; it is one of the oldest concerns of philosophy and theology. But what distinguishes the project today is the sheer variety of academic disciplines it brings together: not just moral philosophy and psychology, but also biology, economics, mathematics, and computer science. They do not merely contemplate the rationale for moral beliefs, but study how morality operates in the real world, or fails to. David Rand of Yale University epitomizes the breadth of this science, ranging from abstract equations to large-scale societal interventions. “I’m a weird person,” he says, “who has a foot in each world, of model-making and of actual experiments and psychological theory building.”

Good or evil?: The great Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (left) argued that moral behavior is innate, whereas Thomas Hobbes, a 17th-century English philosopher, maintained that humans are “naturally wicked,” and must be protected from themselves by governments.Wikipedia

In 2012 he and two similarly broad-minded Harvard professors, Martin Nowak and Joshua Greene, tackled a question that exercised the likes of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Which is our default mode, selfishness or selflessness? Do we all have craven instincts we must restrain by force of will? Or are we basically good, even if we slip up sometimes?

They collected data from 10 experiments, most of them using a standard economics scenario called a public-goods game.1 Groups of four people, either American college students or American adults participating online, were given some money. They were allowed to place some of it into a pool, which was then multiplied and distributed evenly. A participant could maximize his or her income by contributing nothing and just sharing in the gains, but

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