Strange forms of selfishness

Fair warning: this post is political.

There is an experiment sociologists have done to test how the sharing of a windfall alters one’s choices.

The participant is assumed to be in a small, identified, close group. All the young men in a small town, for example.

One of them is told, credibly, that he has a decision to make.

Choice A: every young man in the village gets $100,000 except him. He gets $50,000.

Choice B: every young man in the village gets $20,000 except him. He gets $30,000.

In no case will anyone in the village ever find out that he made the choice, or where the money came from. Everything will be kept secret.

In pretty much every case, the chooser picks B.

It is instructive to look at the reasoning behind this. In choice B everyone gets less than they did in choice A. However, in choice B our chooser gets more than all the others.

Suppose these young men are competing for a shortage of young women. Suppose there is no outside supply. Then it is clear that choice B is the way for our young man to increase his chances of leaving his genes in next generation.

I submit that centuries of selection in village-equivalent circumstances have already biased our judgments for choice B.

I suggest that a politician is well advised to select an outcome in the same manner as our hypothetical young man. Better to be the greatest beneficiary of a smaller benefit, than to be the lesser beneficiary of a much greater benefit.

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