I was surprised to catch this article, from Ars Technica, in my RSS reader. Chris Lee, the author, reviews a very basic level of theory of altruistic behavior in humans. He uses a recently published paper in Nature, “Parochial altruism in humans” to support his opinion of the “inadequacies of current models to explain the detailed behavior of altruism.”

The Nature paper’s lead author, Helen Bernhard an economist at the University of Zurich, compares in-group altruism to out-group altruism amongst Papua New Guinean highland tribes. The abstract reads,

“Social norms and the associated altruistic behaviours are decisive for the evolution of human cooperation and the maintenance of social order, and they affect family life, politics and economic interactions. However, as altruistic norm compliance and norm enforcement often emerge in the context of inter-group conflicts, they are likely to be shaped by parochialism—a preference for favouring the members of one’s ethnic, racial or language group. We have conducted punishment experiments, which allow ‘impartial’ observers to punish norm violators, with indigenous groups in Papua New Guinea. Here we show that these experiments confirm the prediction of parochialism. We found that punishers protect ingroup victims—who suffer from a norm violation—much more than they do outgroup victims, regardless of the norm violator’s group affiliation. Norm violators also expect that punishers will be lenient if the latter belong to their social group. As a consequence, norm violations occur more often if the punisher and the norm violator belong to the same group. Our results are puzzling for evolutionary multi-level selection theories based on selective group extinction as well as for theories of individual selection; they also indicate the need to explicitly examine the interactions between individuals stemming from different groups in evolutionary models.”

Chris writes on how Bernhard studied two tribes in Papua New Guinea. He believes that Bernhard chose these groups because centralized (a.k.a western or foreign) social norms have not yet affect people’s cultures and personalities He writes, “inhabitants are thought to have a society and lifestyle that is as close as possible to that experienced by early modern humans”. I think that’s a bit naive to assume, as tribes in that region have been contacted by westerners for nearly all of the 20th century. Bernhard experimented on members of two tribes who had contact but were not in violent conflict with each other. The experiment setup was a basic resource allocation on. Bernhard established roles such as the dictator, the judge, and the victim. The dictator has some resources and he or she can choose to share some of them with the victim. The judge can then choose to punish the dictator if he or she feels that the sharing was not within the expected social norms. The participants were all informed of which tribe each actor was from so their actions reflect how they expect the in-group and out-group participants to behave.

Unsurprisingly, it was concluded that altruism was strongest when all participants were from the same tribe and the punishment meted out for sharing violations were harsher than for all other combinations except one. … A side-notes, I’m concerned that uninspiring cultural research like this is getting published into Nature, but then again it is coming from an economist… Chris summarizes what he got from the paper,

“In many ways this study agrees with how we intuitively understand intra- and inter-group behavior, which is to be expected, since we make many of our decisions based upon our own understanding of group response. We expect the group social norms to prevent behavior that is harmful to the group. This should also include protecting the group’s status by making a decision which benefits your group (e.g., the judge protecting victims when they are members of the same tribe). However, this study highlights the necessity for a more subtle theory, which can cope with more complex behavior patterns. The authors speculate that while group survival can describe human altruistic behavior in broad brush strokes, it fails when it is necessary to take into account cooperative inter-group behavior.”

Additionally, Chris remarks how he appreciates that Bernhard and troop “have tried to get outside the “hire college students to play a game” routine which is such a common way to study human behavior.” But that’s the whole nature of ethnography and studying core behaviors, like altruism. You must detach yourself from the culture and environments you are accustomed too, in order to observe more true behaviors that would be otherwise tainted by your background and biases.

Anyways, I am sharing these two articles with you because its always effective to see how anthropological methods, like studying altruism, are executed in other disciplines. Furthermore, Chris’ article in Ars Technica, a tech-centered website, elaborate how people with presumably non-anthropological background comprehend and digest this research.