The Game of Genuine Altruism

What can explain why we do something out of the goodness of our heart, or put ourselves into dangerous situations and perform heroic acts? Most heroes that you ask will tell you that they acted instinctively and unconsciously, and didn’t stop to think. But clearly if we all stopped to think about helping and saving others from a purely economical standpoint, there would be a sharp decline in heroic acts. So why do we continue to put ourselves in situations that can be proven to always leave us with lower payoffs?

Some explanations turn to the long run and karma; if we do something kind for someone now then our future prospects of receiving good acts will increase. Many times when the cost is small we see no reason why not to help, even if we are not thinking about getting something in return. There is also the idea of a gain in benefit from developing a reputation, which will ultimately lead to being treated better and gaining more trust.

If you look at heroic actions under an economic microscope one can argue that in order for these heroic instincts to arise, the benefits of acting this way must outweigh the costs, which include the large risk of involving oneself in a dangerous situation.

A game theory model called “the envelope game” begins to answer the motive behind the question of cooperation between two parties. This game was formulated with the intention of having the motive make a difference when players make their choices. This game is similar to many cooperate-defect games, but with a twist:

“the game works this way: Before deciding whether to cooperate, one player has the option of opening an envelope telling him or her whether the cost of cooperation is high or low. Based on that information, that player can choose whether to cooperate or not, and the second player — who knows whether the counterpart looked in the envelope — can then decide whether to repeat the interaction, with a new envelope, or end the relationship.”

Essentially this game captures the notion of whether or not people care if you are principled. The envelope acts as a method of sorting the genuine altruists from those who may unconsciously put their benefits before those of others. Daniel Kahneman presents this way of thinking as allowing System 1, fast, instinctive, and emotional, to take over rather than allowing System 2, slower, and more deliberative and logical, to constantly control these types of decisions.

What researchers discovered was that it needs to be the case that most of the time cooperating is very cheap, but once it becomes very costly and you are tempted to defect then it would really hurt the other player, and that the relationship has some sort of value to the first player. If these conditions are met, as they often are in real life, then instinctive helping will beat stopping to think.

This model doesn’t just apply to two players, as researchers compare bringing a camera crew with you to document your rescue efforts as the equivalent of looking in the envelope, since the public knows that person would probably only help if it wasn’t very costly and that they cannot be as trusted.

Although economics, and its emphasis on weighing out costs and benefits, is a major player in the majority of our decision-making, there are some situations where we are better off not thinking and just doing. This model demonstrates how our decision making systems can often times get in the way of authentic altruism, but it also demonstrates how true heroes make the choices they do.

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