The Project, Part III: Games!

Let’s play a game. It’s called the ULTIMATUM GAME.
(Cue sinister music – but don’t get too excited).

You have one-hundred dollars to divide between yourself and another person. You can divide it however you’d like. However, the other player will have a chance to accept or reject your offer. If they accept it, both of you get the proposed division. If they reject it, both of you get nothing. Make a decision, but don’t screw up!

Imagine playing this game (and a few other variants, such as the “Dictator Game” in which the second player doesn’t have a chance to reject your offer, and a “Punishment Game” where a third player can take away some of your money if they think you made an unfair offer) a few thousand times with farmers in rural Uganda, and you have a fairly good sense of what I’ll be doing for the next six weeks. Sounds kind of boring, right?

Maybe. I’ve spent the last few days writing elaborate protocols to ensure that illiterate farmers internalize each and every rule of the game without being pushed into one decision or another. That’s a little bit boring. But the concept of these games are actually pretty interesting. Simple bargaining games like these can tell researchers quite a bit about cultural norms of fairness and reciprocity and personal values of altruism and vengeance.

Think way back to the division you made two paragraphs ago. If you’re like most people, you probably chose something close to a fifty-fifty division. You probably figured an even division was fair, and that if you had chosen something unfair, the other player would reject it and you both go home empty-handed. But that’s not actually a rational decision. The smart split is to give the other person 1 cent (or about twenty Ugandan shillings!) and keep $99.99 for yourself. Think about it: if the other person is at all self-interested, they ought to realize that something is better than nothing, and so they will accept any offer that isn’t zero. And since people are rational about these sort of things, you should be able to predict the other person’s response to your offer and know to give them as little as possible.

The irony, of course, is that almost no one (barring a few economic grad students, maybe) behaves in the way the previous paragraph describes. And yet, the idea embodied in that game strategy – that human beings are competitive, selfish, and calculating – holds incredible sway in our society. It’s not just that assumptions of rationality are fundamentally still dominant in mainstream economic theory. Claims about human nature resting on this idea of selfishness are essentially a trump card in any argument about the shape human society must take. Why will there always be inequality? Why will there always be competition? Why can a society never be based in cooperation? Because it’s our nature! Because we’ve evolved that way!

The games we’re playing are pretty simple. In the short term, we’re only trying to understand how Ugandan producer-organization executives make decisions about buying, selling, and sharing. But our research will contribute to a growing body of literature that suggests a radically different picture of human nature, based in empirical study of societies that are – owing to their “less developed” state – at least ostensibly more reflective of the way human beings really are supposed to live.

If I could only find a game that will show it’s in human nature to be a vegetarian, I’d really be in business. More on Uganda – and, if you’re good, some pictures – tomorrow.

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