Pure Evil

This is about as close to pure evil as I’ve seen:

Destructive behavior has mostly been investigated by games in which all players have the option to simultaneously destroy (burn) their partners’ money. In the destructor game, players are randomly paired and assigned the roles of destructor versus passive player. The destructor player chooses to destroy or not to destroy a share of his passive partner’s earnings. The passive partner cannot retaliate. In addition, a random event (nature) destroys a percentage of some passive subject’s earnings. From the destructor player’s view, destruction is benefit-less, costless, hidden and unilateral. Unilateral destruction diminishes with respect to bilateral destruction studies, but it does not vanish: 15% of the subjects choose to destroy. This result suggests that, at least for some, destruction is intrinsically pleasurable. (more)

Mind you, its not an especially large evil. But it is an unusually pure evil. And 15% of lab subjects do it!

GD Star Rating
Tagged as:
Trackback URL:
  • This is why we need government … so these 15% of people aren’t free to make their own decisions.

    Wait?  What’s that you say?  That those 15% might end up RUNNING the government?


    That would NEVER happen.

    …but just to be sure, let’s make government even more powerful.

    • Rudd-O

      Excellent comment, right on point.

      The 15% figure dovetails nicely with Altemeyer’s discovery of social dominants.

  • V V

    Is wealth (above subsistence and minimal leisure) zero sum?

    • V V

       Moreover, if you physically destroy some banknotes, you increase the value of all the other banknotes, including the ones that you have. IIUC, in many jurisdictions destroying banknotes is a crime.

      • Gabriel Kummant

        That’s where my mind went. These are broke college kids, so if you’ve got a little more spending money than your partner you have an edge in the only game you care about. Also, do you see your partner in this experiment? Allowing personal history to be a factor seems careless to me, but I didn’t see any mention of it, and I’m not sure why it’s necessary to have the natural destruction possibility to remove accountability if you can’t see each other anyway.

      • daedalus2u

         Yes exactly.  That is precisely what all bullies do, try to destroy something of value that their victim has. 

    • Depends on what you mean by “wealth”. If it is only more paper money, but the total amount of existing things is constant, then yes, it is zero sum. If it means more existing useful things, then no, it is not zero sum.

      As an example: Imagine that only you have an opportunity to press a magical button. If you push it, you will receive a supercomputer, a plasma TV, a car, a helicopter, and a cure for every possible disease; and everyone else on this planet will receive exactly the same things *and a donut*.

      If you believe wealth to be zero sum, you obviously should not press that button.

      • V V


        If you believe wealth to be zero sum, you obviously should not press that button.

        Personally I don’t believe that, but it seems to be a relatively common view.

        I remember that a few years ago, when Apple suddenly dropped the iPhone price by some 200$, there were people who had already bought one complaining all over the Internet.

      • Dremora

        Wealth in positional goods is obviously zero-sum. If you buy an apple so you look better than other people who don’t have apples, you want apples to stay expensive.

      • Unfortunately, your thought experiment begs the question unless the button also results in the destruction of wealth.
        If wealth were zero-sum (and for the record, it is not), such a magical button could not exist without resulting in the destruction of an equivalent amount of resources. In which case, the decision of whether to press the button would depend on your belief as to whose resources would be destroyed. (Likely, rational poor people would be inclined to press the button and rational wealthy people would be disinclined, as the button would result in a more equitable distribution of wealth).

    • Dremora

      Up to a point, no; ultimately, yes. There aren’t infinitely many resources and there is a minimum amount of resources needed for above subsistence and minimal leisure.

  • Radford Neal

    As far as I can tell from a quick glance, there is no actual destruction of wealth involved.  These people are simply choosing to reduce the amount of money that the other subjects are paid by the experimenters.  Perhaps it stems from an altruistic desire to let the experimenters do more experiments?

    For a real test, you’d have to give them the option to really destroy something of value.  (And burning currency doesn’t count, of course.)

  • manwhoisthursday

    I have always found Dostoevsky’s novels a little over the top in regards to his theories, but this the kind of thing that shows he wasn’t completely out of it.

  • BDG1

    It’s not really destruction, so much as a transfer from one stranger (the other test subject) to another stranger (the funding university).  And the value destroyed/transferred was about £2-3.

    Pretty sure you could find much better examples of destructive behavior by watching a grade school playground for a couple hours.

    • Robin Hanson

      BDG1 and Radford, I agree the experiment would have been better if they’d destroyed real resources, but I’m also pretty sure you’d very similar results.

      • BDG1

        Similar meaning 15% or similar meaning non-zero?  My guess is that as you increase the stakes, you’d see considerably less destruction.

        There are relatively easy ways to cause considerable destruction at fairly low cost or risk, such as putting a brick through a stranger’s window, but these occur very rarely.  Wouldn’t you expect otherwise if this study is representative of reality?

  • scaphandre

    I would imagine the subjects see exploring what their options actually do as worth something. Sometimes that will outweigh the harm done to the other party (especially as there seems to be little to no real damage).

    I would guess more of that 15% are swayed by curiosity than malice or evil. Exploring the option territory is ‘good’ to many optimizers.

  • Dave Lindbergh

    This isn’t pure evil, as the other commenters have said.

  • blink

    Perhaps this experiment really shows subjects are averse to passivity.  Subjects want to do *something* while sitting around in the experiment and destruction is the only alternative to nothing.  Most people resist the urge, but some do not.

    What if the effects are reversed so it is a “creator” game where the player has a “benefit-less, costless, hidden and unilateral” option to create wealth for the other.  I imagine most people would also choose this option.  Instead consider a game with both a creative and a destructive option available.  If players chose destruction here, I would be more inclined to agree with the pure evil interpretation.

    • Guy Srinivasan

      “In order to
      minimize any experimenter-demand effect, the destroy choice is the fourth task in
      a five-task experiment2.”
      “2 To minimize further the experimenter-demand effect the destructor player has to tick a box, i.e., to do something, in any case”

  • Michael Wengler

    Did I understand that paper correctly to say that what was “destroyed” was either 20% or 40% of a passive players TOKENS, but that all players still received the same GBP 9 payment and that all players knew this?  

    Then this is an investigation of destruction in nearly name only.  Nothing of value was destroyed.  

    Please correct me if I misunderstood the paper.  Because as I understand it, it is a very nearly meaningless result.  Just using the word “destruction” hardly makes this an experiment that has anything to actually do with destruction.  

    • Guy Srinivasan

      As far as I can tell, all players had common knowledge that their completion fee for question 3 was identical – 1000 tokens. The tokens translated to payment in some way that for no good reason is not mentioned in the paper. Maybe they got other tokens as other completion fees? The average payment ended up being but was not set to GBP 9, and it looks like about 2-3% of the total question-3 payout was destroyed.

  • Siddharth

    I wonder if they studied how the fraction of people who choose destruction varies with the amount to be destroyed. Basically, purity of evil vs. largeness of evil. I would predict that purity decreases with largeness.

  • It would be interesting to do the same experiment in many different countries.

    My prediction: poor countries would have more people who choose destruction.

    (If true, my interpretation: this is part of what makes, or at least keeps them poor. Of course most people, if asked later, would find some excuse why the destruction was the right thing to do. The distribution of excuses per country could also be interesting, if there are significant differences.)

  • Another paper talking about a similar result: The Pleasure of Being Nasty

  • Kith Pendragon

    I challenge the statement that “destruction is benefit-less”.  By depriving an opponent of resources you decrease the average fitness of the group and increase your relative fitness accordingly.
    I’m afraid I don’t find this result particularly surprising.
    Also, schadenfreude.

  • Kith Pendragon

    Oops, double-post. Sorry.

  • Nobody

    With these stakes, I would choose destroy even if only to mess with the experiment design. Maybe that makes me doubly evil.

  • Kith Pendragon

    Something that just occurred to me…
    What exactly do you mean by “evil”?  I find that in general conversation that word tends to be sorely underspecified.

  • Steven E. Landsburg

    Others (starting with BDG1) have observed that this experiment has nothing to do with destruction.  Your response was that if the experimenters HAD done an experiment involving destruction, you expect that the results would have been similar. 

    But if we’re going to base our analysis on the imaginary outcomes of imaginary experiments, why invoke the real outcomes of real but irrelevant experiments in the first place?

    Suppose I quote a study showing that 30% of adults will push a child out of the way of a speeding bus, and conclude that 30% of adults will push children for no reason because “I expect” that the bus had no effect on their behavior.  Would you find this terribly convincing?

    • Robin Hanson

      This is a common objection to MANY experiments on social preferences. For some of these researchers have tried to actually destroy resources, and my understanding is that they usually get the same answer. Which is why most others don’t bother.

  • dmytryl

    Bad experiment. Nothing to do with what it claims to study. Should of destroyed something physical. E.g. one can receive a wallet or t-shirt or something, and the evil can opt to burn (physically destroy) this item

  • Misaki

     Don’t be silly, it’s just a game. And reminding people that there are more things to life than money has value.

    If it was real money: well then, you just gave everyone with a dollar an extra $0.000001 due to a lower inflation rate.

    If it was iPhones instead of dolars, well then you just created an extra hour of work for various workers in the Apple supply chain, and the unemployment rate goes down slightly.

    • Army1987

       Broken window fallacy.

    • dmytryl

       The difference between phones and dollar bills is in the amount of resources spent manufacturing a phone vs a dollar bill, and with the beneficial effect of existence of piece of paper vs beneficial effect of existence of the iphone.

      Burning a big denomination bill is still a net loss as it will be re-printed by the government, but a very small loss, compared to destruction of something like a phone.

  • If you think you want to study this in an environment that caters to this sort of behavior, just play Eve Online. In this environment, the destructor is collecting/harvesting “tears”.

  • tlwest

    Indeed, anyone who has ever played an MMO is familiar with the concept of “griefing”, which is causing other players grief for the sheer joy of it.  Luckily, the amusement derived from griefing does tend to drop as people get older.