Future Altruism, Not

In the laboratory dictator game, you give subjects a pile of money and ask them if they want to give some of it to anonymous other subjects.  In the lab people do give away some money, a lot more than if you had handed money to someone on the street.  People give less if the experiment is double-blind, if there is social distance between the giver and recipient, and according to a new study, if payments are received more than a week after the decision:

We experimentally study the effect of time on altruism. By postponing payments in a standard Dictator game, subjects allocate a future payment between themselves and others. Since both the payoffs of the Dictator and the Receiver are delayed until the same time, standard intertemporal utility maximization would predict that waiting time should not affect the Dictator’s choice. In this respect, we observe that Dictators’ decisions are not affected, as long as the time interval between the decision and payment is not large [2-6 days, median gift 15%]. On the other hand, for large time gaps [10-22 days, median gift 0%], subjects become more self-interested.

I fear this is more bad news about our altruism toward the very distant future. 

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  • http://profile.typekey.com/GavinBrown/ GavinBrown

    It seems that the dictator is more concerned with how the other person feels treated, rather than their actual financial welfare. The dictator makes the assumption that given the amount of time between the experiment and the payout, emotional issues will be lessened.

    The value in the study is only 6 euros. Understandably, people are not particularly concerned with the financial outcome and more focused on the emotional outcome. They believe (rightly?) that the outcome of an experiment in the setting of the experiment will have much more emotional impact than money received a week or more later.

    It would be more compelling to see this study done with higher stakes. A cheap way to do it might be with the dictator splitting the money between himself (where it’s worth one meal) and disaster relief where 6 euros worth of rice or water will save lives. This study’s result only doesn’t tell much.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/tobyord/ Toby Ord

    I don’t really see what the ‘Dictator Game’ has to do with altruism, at least as I understand it. For the game is not about sacrificing oneself for the greater benefit: on the face of it, there is no net benefit to the sacrifice. Perhaps the other person needs the money more than the ‘dictator’, perhaps they don’t. It is more about sharing and norms of sharing, and it is not clear that the moral action is to share in this case. More interesting would be a variant of the Dictator Game in which each dollar you forgo gives two dollars to the other person (which I’ve heard is used sometimes). Even then there are issues for anyone astute enough to know that they are just redistributing between the experimenters and the subjects — no net value is created. I would personally propose a version with cakes that would spoil if not eaten, or something like that.

  • steven

    Toby, “altruism” means sacrificing oneself for others (“alter”), and I don’t see why we shouldn’t still apply the word “altruism” to acts of self-sacrifice that from a utilitarian point of view are irrational.

  • Jay

    “I fear this is more bad news about our altruism toward the very distant future.”

    Come on. Greed and freedom is what will bring us a prosperous future.

  • George Weinberg

    If these “altruistic” acts do not result in a net benefit, why is it in any way desirable that people perform them?

  • steven

    It’s not, but if people perform them less with a delay than without a delay, then the same is probably also true of altruistic acts that do result in a net benefit.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    In the context of Robin’s linked earlier post about global warming, one of the issues is that when we divert resources today to try to reduce future global warming, it can have a genuine cost to the future by reducing the wealth that those diverted resources would have generated. And the big problem is that by standard accounting, even small diversions can produce enormous costs due to the tremendous multiplying effect of economic growth over many decades. This then must be balanced against the also potentially enormous costs of global warming. But both cost estimates have large uncertainties, making the balance an almost impossible problem, and as commented above, calling into question exactly what is the altruistic action.

    Our production today can be roughly divided into capital goods and consumption goods. Capital goods are investments in the future and will bear dividends for years to come. Consumption goods give us pleasure today and are then gone. The cost to the future of diversions to reduce global warming will depend on what percentage we take from these two categories. If we could just reduce our consumption and maintain our capital investments, then there would apparently be little or no cost to the future and it would be a total win, except of course for our sacrifice today. Diverting capital investments can maintain consumption, at least in the short term, but with a larger long-term cost.

    In practice I think we assume that the mix of consumption and capital production will stay much as it is today, with both reduced equally to accommodate new expenses diverted to global warming reduction. But it would appear that the truly altruistic action would be to fund global warming reduction efforts largely from consumption goods, while maintaining capital spending. I don’t know what economic incentives and mechanisms would be needed to structure the diversion in that form.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Hal, it might be that the more truly altruistic action is to divert consumption to more capital spending, instead of diverting to global warming reduction. Our descendants might prefer we saved them a billion dollars each and left the planet a bit warmer.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    Robin – Ah, good point. I forgot about that possibility.

    Indeed from the selfish perspective we should all prefer that our ancestors had invested more in the future rather than squandering resources on their own short-term pleasures. OTOH from the altruistic perspective, they lived lives that were mostly much harder than our own, with shorter and less healthy lifespans, greater risks, more dangers, more suffering and hardship. So one can certainly make a case that they well deserved whatever morsels of happiness they were able to squirrel away, and that perhaps we do not deserve the wealth we receive by virtue of their hopeful sacrifices for the future.

    I often read claims that our descendants will curse us for our selfishness and short-sightedness. Last week Thomas Friedman made just this argument in the New York Times. But how much time do we waste cursing our ancestors? If today’s CO2 levels are too high, can’t we blame the 20th century? But nobody spends pages taking the 1960s to task, because it’s pointless. You can’t change the past. People in the future will blame each other for their troubles, just like we do today. They will not complain about their ancestors.

    I don’t fully understand how it is that society, in all its macroeconomic glory, manages to set aside reserves for future growth, avoids eating the seed corn, and arranges for each generation to exceed all previous ones in wealth and power. It seems that most people don’t perceive this reality; they assume that the world was richer in the past and will be poorer in the future. And so this influences altruistic thinking as well as Friedman’s predictions of our children’s attitudes.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    But how much time do we waste cursing our ancestors?

    I spend a relatively large amount of time so doing this – partly because I’ve done a lot of reading on the American chestnut.

    For the most part, I don’t curse our ancestors because we can’t do anything about them. If time travel existed and were capable of changing things, though, I would gladly wipe out previous progenitor states of our and other civilizations.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/tobyord/ Toby Ord

    But how much time do we waste cursing our ancestors?

    Actually, this is pretty common. Criticism of the treatment of native Americans or Australian aborigines is very common, although much of this is criticism on behalf of others, not because the criticizers has been messed up by their own ancestors. This later case does still occur fairly frequently. For example, we often criticize people in the past for destroying parts of our own heritage (knocking down important building etc) or for destroying aspects of the environment. A good example of this is that in Australia there is a lot of criticism of early settlers for the introduction of species that were very invasive.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/tobyord/ Toby Ord

    I should add that the time is not wasted if the criticism is instructive, just as criticism of people in your own generation (e.g. of the Board of Enron) can be useful and instructive even if it can’t change the past event.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

    Steve Sailer argues that much of the ancestor criticism is actually of OTHER PEOPLE’S ancestors. I once sat in a discussion presided over by Tim Wise and he mentioned how so many of his supporters emphasized their ethnic identity distinct from the bad old WASPs and he had to beat into their heads that they were white and still had white privilege no matter what Oliver Cromwell did centuries ago.