January 18, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Game Theory Undermined: Evolution of Altruism Not Demonstrated

Games that psychologists play with human lab rats don’t show what evolutionists think they do.

For many years, evolutionary psychologists have used games like the “public goods game” to probe the origin of human altruistic behavior in natural selection (e.g. 9/07/14, 1/31/14, 11/03/13, 8/15/12).  The games may not reflect reality, an article on PhysOrg suggests.

Economic ‘games’ routinely used in the lab to probe people’s preferences and thoughts find that humans are uniquely altruistic, sacrificing money to benefit strangers. A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B suggests that people don’t actually play these games in the way researchers expect, and finds no evidence for altruistic behaviour.

Dr Maxwell Burton-Chellew from the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford casts doubt on the methods used.  Interviewed in the article, he explains that the subjects may just not understand the rules. Asked if his findings threaten to undermine years of work, he said:

This is potentially quite a bit [sic; big] problem for the field, since all the work (and there is a lot!) using these economic games assumes that you can probe peoples’ thoughts, desires and, importantly, preferences by using these games. But if they don’t understand the game, it all falls apart. For example, some previous work uses these games to suggest that different people might have varying levels of altruism, with culture and specific genes influencing altruism. But these results could just reflect differences in how well people understand the game, how consistently they play it, whether they use all the information available to them or ignore it, or any combination of these factors.

Burton-Chellew gives more reasons why the experiments are doomed to fail:

Well, it is interesting to contrast how animal behaviourists and economists study animals making choices. In non-human animal studies, you need a lot of evidence to back up any claims of cognition, and you have to build up any claims for cognitive operations (such as altruism or rational decision-making) from the bottom up. Economics, on the other hand, often assumes that humans always make sensible decisions, and any claims of deviations from this instead need lots of evidence. So it’s more of a top-down approach. Scientifically, this doesn’t make any sense: there shouldn’t be a difference in approaches to studying humans versus other animals. I am hoping to bring these two approaches together.

So rather than illuminating human behavior, the experiments may just be recreation, with the losers of the game being the evolutionary psychologists.

So how, exactly, is the Oxford zoologist going to treat his fellow human beings without committing the Ratomorphic Fallacy? (treating humans as lab rats).  Is he going to put the humans in cages and feed them cheese while he manipulates their environment? Or is he going to teach the rats to talk so that he can reason with them about economics? “Scientifically, this doesn’t make any sense” to treat humans and animals differently, he says. You be the judge of what makes sense. If he thinks altruism evolved from animals, then so did his scientific reasoning. Unless he is willing to get in the cage with the human animals, he has a bad case of the Yoda Complex. Nevertheless, we agree that the years of work by game theorists trying to understand human behavior amounts to goofing off on the job.

Note to Oxford eggheads: economics is an intelligent-design-based science.

 

 

 

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