We are genetically programmed to look out for ourselves. Or more accurately, we are genetically programmed in ways that will protect our genes (and their future replication.) So it is not surprising that humans are prone to “assholeness.”
On an individual basis, it is generally better for our genes to do whatever is best for ourselves at the sacrifice of anyone around us. Consider the infamous “Prisoner’s Dilemma” problem that Richard Dawkins outlines in his book, The Selfish Gene. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is named for the choice prisoners make when they decide whether or not to rat out their accomplice to save themselves. The “dilemma” comes from them not knowing what strategy their partner will take. It is a big risk to stand up for their partner, because if they get ratted out, they will be a “sucker” and have a stronger sentence. And it is a big temptation to rat out their partner because they are assured of a lighter sentence (or maybe even having charges dropped in exchange for their testimony.)
Research on Prisoner’s Dilemma games shows that the best strategy, in any individual game, is to always rat out your partner—to always pursue the selfish option. If your partner was going to rat you out, this will prevent you from being the sucker left holding the bag. And if your partner was going to support you, ratting them out gets you off scot free and leaves them to pay the music. Being the rat always wins.
But the good news for human society and evolution, is that we don’t experience these kinds of interactions in isolation. When we have repeated interactions with the same partner, different strategies emerge as successful. Now, it is not only a question of who comes out better at the end of the game; you have to consider how your post-game relationship will influence future interactions.
If you employ a strategy that causes your partner to distrust you in the future, this could be bad in the long run. If you employ a strategy that builds trust, that could be good in the long run. If you are interested in these ideas, Dawkins lays out the case far more eloquently than I do in The Selfish Gene. The chapter is called, “Nice Guys Finish First.”
Dawkins describes how strategies for interacting will fluctuate across a spectrum and will always be changing and evolving, but they will tend to move towards an “evolutionarily stable strategy” (ESS) with just the right mix of altruism and assholness (my words, not his.) While there will always be some assholes in the mix (to keep things interesting and to keep us all on our toes,) groups will tend to stabilize with strategies that are “mostly nice.”
This seems to make sense, and supports other ideas of how “reciprocal altruism” has evolved. In a community, altruism makes sense (even if it involves some personal sacrifice) because “what goes around comes around.”
The question for me, (because the ESS depends entirely on the context in which it develops,) is how does modern life change the game? Has urbanization led us to lose our sense of community to the extent that “mostly nice” strategies no longer yield the same benefit? Is our overpopulated, hyper-urbanized, fast-paced world a breeding ground for a new generation of assholes?
Ironically, the hope for the future of our species seems to come from technology. Some people have said that the age of social media has brought back “small town rules.” Social technologies ensure that, in spite of urbanization, we have less anonymity, more transparency, and more relationships to be protected than ever before. Our reputation for being “good” is more valuable than it has ever been before. As Rachel Botsman said in a recent TED talk, “the currency of the new economy is trust.”
This is one of the great paradoxes of modern life: that in spite of our “selfish genes” we are becoming more collaborative and not less. Nice guys do indeed finish first. And the best part? . . . The future does not look good for assholes.
References and recommended reading:
Dawkins, R. (1990). The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press; 2nd Edition.
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