MARTY RUSSELL: Willingness to give could explain our very survival

By Marty Russell

Anybody seen that movie, “The Box”?
Me neither. But I have seen enough of the ads to know the basic premise. A couple is given a box with a big red button on it. If they press the button, they get a million dollars. Catch is – and there’s always a catch – someone on the planet will die as a result. Presumably, the couple has no idea who that person is and probably has never met them. If they press the button, they certainly never will.
But they’ll be a million dollars richer.
Apparently the central theme of the film is just how greedy and selfish have we become? That’s a question real researchers are also asking – how did civilization and, in fact, the human race itself, survive and evolve if we’re all looking out for our own interests first at the expense of our fellow man?
A team of scientists led by a University of British Columbia researcher recently concluded a study looking at 15 small communities around the globe with varying cultural, religious and economic mores, according to an article in Tuesday’s New York Times. They had the participants play a game called Dictator, where one participant was the Dictator and was given the equivalent of a day’s wages in their own economy.
Another, anonymous to the Dictator, participant was then introduced to see if the Dictator would share any of the wealth. The Dictator’s identity was also unknown to the other participant, removing any inclination to “save face” and prevent possible embarrassment or shame.
What the researchers found was that in a small community in Missouri where the study was conducted, participants, on average, gave up as much as 45 percent of their day’s wages to the other, unknown, participant as did study participants in places like Ghana and Columbia. Participants from hunter/gatherer, foraging and subsistence farming communities were less inclined to share, giving up only about 25 percent of their wealth on average.
The researchers concluded that fairness, or being nice to others, is in large part the result of “market integration.”
Those who must find their own food are less inclined to share with others while those who can pop into the local grocery store or market are more generous, even toward strangers.
“Markets don’t work very efficiently if everyone acts selfishly and believes everyone else will do the same, the study concluded. But if you develop norms to be fair and trusting with people beyond your social sphere, that provides enormous economic advantages and allows a society to grow.”
Makes you wonder if there’s a lesson in there for those who paint health care reform as socialism and a government hand-out. I wonder what those folks would have done in the Dictator game?

Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 222 Farley Hall, University MS 38677 or by e-mail at