So-Called “Altruism” An Artefact of Experiment Mistakes


these findings suggest that the case for altruistic punishment in humans—a view that has gained increasing attention in the biological and social sciences—has been overstated.Some researchers have proposed that natural selection has given rise in humans to one or more adaptations for altruistically punishing on behalf of other individuals who have been treated unfairly, even when the punisher has no chance of benefiting via reciprocity or benefits to kin.

However, empirical support for the altruistic punishment hypothesis depends on results from experiments that are vulnerable to potentially important experimental artefacts.

Here, we searched for evidence of altruistic punishment in an experiment that precluded these artefacts. In so doing, we found that:
victims of unfairness punished transgressors, whereas witnesses of unfairness did not
Furthermore, witnesses’ emotional reactions to unfairness were characterized by envy of the unfair individual’s selfish gains rather than by moralistic anger towards the unfair behaviour.
we found that previous evidence for altruistic punishment plausibly resulted from affective forecasting error—that is, limitations on humans’ abilities to accurately simulate how they would feel in hypothetical situations.

The enemy of my friend: Altruistic punishment in humans called into question

That Homo sapiens exhibits both cooperative and competitive behavior is a topic that continues to be the subject of ongoing discussion. In terms of cooperation, altruism (a selfless type of prosocial behavior in which an organism acts to benefit another at a cost to itself), has received significant attention from evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists, economists, psychologists, philosophers, social scientists, game theorists, and computer scientists. In particular, altruistic punishment – in which individuals who, at no apparent benefit (or even at a cost) to themselves, punish someone who has treated another unfairly – has been demonstrated in a range of studies. Recently, however, scientists at the University of Miami posited that the evidence for these results is possibly affected by experimental artifacts, and is therefore questionable. …

“As a psychologist who does a fair amount of laboratory experimentation, I was rather surprised by some of the inferential holes in the studies that others were holding up as ‘proof’ for the existence of altruistic punishment. …

McCullough also comments on the role of adaptationism – the view that natural selection among individuals within a population is the force responsible for complex functional design in biological systems – in their findings. “Adaptationism is based, one might say, on a couple of key tenets. The first is that natural selection builds complex functional design into biological systems because those design features serve functions – that is, they make something happen in the world that increases the organism’s lifetime reproductive success, and as a result, the genes that produce those traits increase in the population until they become species-typical. The second tenet,” he continues, “is that adaptations should be better at executing the behaviors they evolved to execute than they are at executing other behaviors that they didn’t evolve to execute. So, when we see that suffering direct harm to oneself makes people angry and willing to punish the person who harmed them, but also that they don’t become angry or willing to punish when the person harmed was a complete stranger, we have learned something about how humans’ anger/punishment system might have evolved via natural selection to operate. Namely, it looks like a system that monitors the world for personal harm and then generates noxious behaviors that might deter harm-doers from behaving similarly toward oneself again. That’s essentially one way adaptationist hypotheses about behavior get tested.”

McCullough stresses that their critical finding is that victims of unfairness punished transgressors, whereas witnesses of unfairness did not. “It really calls into question something that many scholars have come to take for granted – namely, that we have a built-in taste for punishing norm-violators, even when the norm violator has not harmed us directly.”


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