Put four Boston students-all strangers-in a game where they must distribute tokens among themselves using rules that reward both selfish and cooperative moves; allow them to punish each other by taking back tokens (albeit at a cost to themselves); and then watch the chips fall. The students not only penalize freeloaders- that is, players who don’t give enough tokens to the group- but also respond to each other’s punishment by giving more to the group in subsequent rounds. So do students in western European countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and Denmark.
But half a world away, in the more collectivist cultures of Istanbul, Turkey; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; and Muscat, Oman, the play is a little rougher. Students give less overall to the public weal. And when punished, the freeloaders strike back, exacting revenge from the do-gooders who penalized them in earlier rounds. Closer to home, students in Greece, Russia, and Belarus likewise act less altruistically and more readily ding their cooperative colleagues.
Having watched college students play the token game in 16 cities, the researchers conclude that “culture strongly influences cooperation and punishment,” says Simon Gächter, an economist at the University of Nottingham in England and one of the study’s authors.
Ironically, a distaste for civic cooperation and the rule of law tends to travel with collectivism, data from the World Values Survey show. Collectivistic societies stress interdependence between people and the pursuit of group goals. But not just any people or group’s goals count, explains Gächter: “In these societies you cooperate with people inside your network, which is organized along family and friendship lines. In our experiments, everyone is an outsider to everyone else. You might not accept punishment from outside your network.”
Conversely, individualistic societies view each person as independent and value the pursuit of individual goals. These mores are more prevalent in wealthier democracies, notes Herbert Gintis, an economist at the Santa Fe Institute, in an accompanying article. “In modern, market-based societies, group boundaries aren’t very important,” explains Gächter. “You have to be able to cooperate with unrelated strangers.” And so rather than being hotbeds of cut-throat competition, capitalist democracies are actually kinder and gentler than more traditional economies—at least for strangers.
Similar results have been rolling in for a while now. So it should be considered scientifically and thus intellectually bogus to characterize individualist cultures and markets societies as encouraging some kind of atomized dog-eat-dog ethic. There is tribalist solidarity, which certainly has its share of mammalian gratification, but leads to vicious conflict between tribes. And then there is liberal, market solidarity, which is based not in exclusion, or a feeling of warmth for our kinsmen, but in a perhaps less “meaningful” yet much more materially significant relations of extended mutual advantage.
[Thanks to Ashley March for the article.]