March 21, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Psychology Without Darwin

Can psychology kick the Darwin habit?  For years it has been conventional to express all human actions in Darwinian terms.  We struggle with city life, for instance, because we evolved to hunt prey in the savannah – not the Georgia kind, but the African plains where we first climbed down from the trees to walk upright.  War, altruism, music, language, culture, and many other human behavioral traits both good and bad (including murder and rape) have been explained as adaptations due to group selection, individual selection, or both.  Two papers this week, however, break this trend.  One struggles to find an evolutionary explanation and fails.  The other has no need of the Darwin hypothesis.

  1. Punishing Darwin with faint praise:  “Winners don’t punish” is the title of an unusual paper in Nature.1  An interdisciplinary team from Harvard and Stockholm School of Economics, composed of specialists in evolutionary dynamics, economics, mathematics and systems biology studied the phenomenon of “costly punishment,” looking for its evolutionary origin.  Costly punishment means “paying a costly punishment to incur a cost” – e.g., revenge.  How is this human behavior to be explained?
        The team could not find adequate explanations in group selection or individual selection.  It seems maladaptive in all cases.  Kin selection, direct and indirect reciprocity, and all the other Darwinian buzz-phrases seemed inadequate.  They ran game experiments giving subjects opportunities to cooperate, defect, or impose punishment on others (something like Survivor?).  The control group was denied the option of costly punishment.  What happened?

    Here we show that the option of costly punishment increases the amount of cooperation but not the average payoff of the group.  Furthermore, there is a strong negative correlation between total payoff and use of costly punishment.  Those people who gain the highest total payoff tend not to use costly punishment: winners don’t punish.  This suggests that costly punishment behaviour is maladaptive in cooperation games and might have evolved for other reasons.

    That last line shows they left the door open for some unknown evolutionary explanation, but they could only suggest options.  Maybe it gives a way for an individual to enforce submission or rise to dominance.  Even so, their conclusion sounded distinctly un-Darwinian:

    People engage in conflicts and know that conflicts can carry costs.  Costly punishment serves to escalate conflicts, not to moderate them.  Costly punishment might force people to submit, but not to cooperate.  It could be that costly punishment is beneficial in these other games, but the use of costly punishment in games of cooperation seems to be maladaptive.  We have shown that in the framework of direct reciprocity, winners do not use costly punishment, whereas losers punish and perish.

    In the same issue of Nature,2 two German reviewers almost seemed forlorn that no evolutionary explanation was found.  Milinski and Rockenbach said, “The tendency of humans to punish perceived free-loaders, even at a cost to themselves, is an evolutionary puzzle: punishers perish, and those who benefit the most are those who have never punished at all.”  Costly punishment can enforce cooperation, they said, but “it can’t have evolved for inducing cooperation.”  The reason?  Punishment is “fundamentally counterproductive, because it pays off neither for the punisher nor for the group.”  It is intuitively obvious that natural selection would not retain a counterproductive or maladaptive trait.
        Ethical questions aside about their methodology and conclusions, the significant aspect of this paper is that they could not find a Darwinian explanation for the trait.  The team and the reviewers – six evolutionary specialists – had to leave this conundrum unanswered: “costly punishment remains one of the most thorny puzzles in human social dilemmas.  Dreber and colleagues’ results make it plain that we are still a long way from understanding the dark side of human sociality.”

  2. Give, and you shall receive:  The next day, a paper in Science did not even attempt to find Darwin in the data.3  Three researchers from University of British Columbia and Harvard reported, “Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness.”  (We need scientific papers to explain the obvious sometimes.)  They did experiments cross-sectionally and longitudinally on subjects.  They even checked anonymous giving: “participants who were randomly assigned to spend money on others experienced greater happiness than those assigned to spend money on themselves.”
        They didn’t exactly quote Jesus, “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” but they did rhetorically pose Mom and Dad’s truism, “Money can’t buy happiness” as a question expecting a negative answer:

    Can money buy happiness?  A large body of cross-sectional survey research has demonstrated that income has a reliable, but surprisingly weak, effect on happiness within nations, particularly once basic needs are met.  Indeed, although real incomes have surged dramatically in recent decades, happiness levels have remained largely flat within developed countries across time.  One of the most intriguing explanations for this counterintuitive finding is that people often pour their increased wealth into pursuits that provide little in the way of lasting happiness, such as purchasing costly consumer goods.  An emerging challenge, then, is to identify whether and how disposable income might be used to increase happiness.
        Ironically, the potential for money to increase happiness may be subverted by the kinds of choices that thinking about money promotes; the mere thought of having money makes people less likely to help acquaintances, to donate to charity, or to choose to spend time with others, precisely the kinds of behaviors that are strongly associated with happiness.  At the same time, although thinking about money may drive people away from prosocial behavior, money can also provide a powerful vehicle for accomplishing such prosocial goals.  We suggest that using money in this fashion—investing income in others rather than oneself—may have measurable benefits for one’s own happiness.

    Again, it’s not that they quoted the Bible, “the love of money is the root of all evil,” but that this paper lacked any reference to evolutionary theory.
        Incidentally, how does a scientist devise a happy-meter?  They didn’t.  They asked the survey respondents to rate their happiness under various situations, such as after receiving a windfall profit-sharing bonus, and they categorized and did mathematical analysis on the results.
        They found it alarming that so few invest money in prosocial spending when happiness seems clearly to be an outcome.  By the end of the paper, their advice sounded almost moral:

    Given that people appear to overlook the benefits of prosocial spending, policy interventions that promote prosocial spending—encouraging people to invest income in others rather than in themselves—may be worthwhile in the service of translating increased national wealth into increased national happiness.

    The paper was summarized in a Science Now article.  Elsa Youngstedt remarked about the counter-intuitive result that shows giving the lottery might be more fun than getting it.  “Overturning classic economic wisdom,” she said, “new research shows that it’s not how much you have that matters, it’s how you spend it.  People who donate their dollars to charities or splurge on gifts for others are more content than those who squander all the dough on themselves.”  Her write-up also said nothing about evolution, nor did the report by Brendan Borrell on Nature News.


1.  Dreber, Rand, Fudenberg, and Nowak, “Winners don’t punish,” Nature 452, 348-351 (20 March 2008) | doi:10.1038/nature06723.
2.  Manfred Milinski and Bettina Rockenbach, “Human behaviour: Punisher pays,” Nature 452, 297-298 (20 March 2008) | doi:10.1038/452297a.
3.  Dunn, Aknin and Norton, “Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness,” Science, 21 March 2008: Vol. 319. no. 5870, pp. 1687-1688, DOI: 10.1126/science.1150952.

Evolutionary theory is without form and void, but lacking an intelligent spirit to hover over its dark waters, it will never emerge into a garden of scientific understanding.  When they try to find Darwin’s tree in their mindless void, they fail; when they don’t, they do just as well and, like the proverbial broken clock, are occasionally right.  Being right by chance is no reason to follow their advice.
    We don’t need Science to tell us how to behave.  We don’t need their mythical edens in the savannah to explain our dark side.  Their explanations leave puzzles, conundrums, and emptiness.  While policies that promote prosocial spending (e.g., tax breaks for charitable donations) make sense, who believes for a minute that a government or oligarchy of scientists will change people’s hearts?
    Science encroaches here on foreign territory.  There is an institution with a much better track record on helping people avoid costly punishment and enjoy the happiness of giving: a church that teaches the operating manual of the Manufacturer without adding or taking away from it.  Why does the USA have the best success rate in the pursuit of happiness?  Because its founders believed that humans were not just evolved animals.  They held them as truths that people are endowed by their Creator with life and liberty and self-determination.  In light of the two papers above, it seems obvious now.  You might almost say it is self-evident.

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