Measuring the distribution of spitefulness

by on December 6, 2012 at 3:47 am in Games, History, Science | Permalink

There is a new paper by Erik Kimbrough and J. Philipp Reiss, of importance for my world view:

Spiteful, antisocial behavior may undermine the moral and institutional fabric of society, producing disorder, fear, and mistrust. Previous research demonstrates the willingness of individuals to harm others, but little is understood about how far people are willing to go in being spiteful (relative to how far they could have gone) or their consistency in spitefulness across repeated trials. Our experiment is the first to provide individuals with repeated opportunities to spitefully harm anonymous others when the decision entails zero cost to the spiter and cannot be observed as such by the object of spite. This method reveals that the majority of individuals exhibit consistent (non-)spitefulness over time and that the distribution of spitefulness is bipolar: when choosing whether to be spiteful, most individuals either avoid spite altogether or impose the maximum possible harm on their unwitting victims.

I put Bryan Caplan on the “least spiteful” side of the distribution.

For the pointer I thank (the non-spiteful) Michelle Dawson.

Thursday December 6, 2012 at 4:04 am

Is it possible to be both non-spiteful, yet often totally hateful, because Caplan has said some pretty vicious things about immigration restrictionists. He doesn’t seem to hold a grudge though, if that’s what you mean?

Finch December 6, 2012 at 10:27 am

He is a little funny in this respect. Caplan moved me from being pretty much in favor of open borders to favoring moderately more restrictive (and vastly redesigned) immigration than we have now.

When you see how he addresses the issue, it’s hard not to read in malice and deception. Nowdays I have a hard time thinking his motives are pure. But I really do believe that they are. Perhaps he just wants the conclusion so much that isn’t capable of thinking straight on it anymore?

Finch December 6, 2012 at 10:29 am

> Perhaps he just wants the conclusion so much that isn’t capable of thinking straight on it anymore?

In this respect, he sort of reminds me of Carl Sagan.

Finch December 6, 2012 at 10:30 am

> Perhaps he just wants the conclusion so much that isn’t capable of thinking straight on it anymore?

In this respect, he sort of reminds me of Carl Sagan.

This might get duplicated…

MC December 6, 2012 at 1:26 pm


He also uttered this asininity about our servicemen:

“In fact, I think my American ‘defenders’ owe me an apology.”

Andrew' December 6, 2012 at 2:31 pm

No, the servicemen you are apparently referring to are either unwiting or…witting(?) victims of the people Caplan is talking about.

And he is right. We have not had a real threat to our national existence since it was invaded by The North.

Finch December 6, 2012 at 2:38 pm

> We have not had a real threat to our national existence since it was invaded by The North.

I think the Soviets were a real threat to our national existence.

Andrew' December 6, 2012 at 3:01 pm

It would be interesting to know.

Finch December 6, 2012 at 3:08 pm

Well, they did have a lot of nuclear weapons pointed at us.

If my neighbor walked around his front yard pointing a loaded shotgun at my kids, I’d call that a threat even if he’d never to my knowledge shot anyone before. I’m not a mind reader.

MC December 6, 2012 at 4:15 pm

If you read the post and the one it was based on, it is clear that Caplan was arguing with Steve Sailer about whether he owed any gratitude to the men who put their lives on the line for him for jingoistic reasons he disdains.

Ray Lopez December 6, 2012 at 5:39 am

Caplan is a good read,thanks for the mention. How did he enter this thread though? What is TC’s world view? Fair use excerpts below. I personally favor 100% open borders BTW–even having voodoo priests as neighbors is OK with me (yes I lived in DC).

Caplan at Cato “To justifiably restrict migration, you need to overcome the moral presumption in favor of open borders (Huemer 2010).How would one go about overcoming this presumption? For starters, you must show that the evils of free immigration are fairly severe. Immigration restrictions trap many millions in Third World misery. Economists’ consensus estimate is that open borders would roughly double world GDP, enough to virtually eliminate global poverty (Clemens 2011). The injustice and harm that immigration restrictions prevent has to be at least comparable to the injustice and harm that immigration restrictions impose. … Contrary to popular opinion, then, “protecting American workers” is a weak rationale for immigration restrictions. Immigration makes low-skilled natives worse off, especially if they rent. But most Americans gain. … In The Myth of the Rational Voter (Caplan 2007), I conclude that democracies choose bad policies because bad policies are popular, and bad policies are popular because voters have systematically biased beliefs about their effects” – I also like Caplan’s point about heterogeneous societies favor a smaller state in the long run, as opposed to homoegeneous race societies (for obvious ‘selfish gene’ reasons, however misguided).

Andrew' December 6, 2012 at 8:20 am

Not sure why this is hard. Our voters want bad policies but we should increase the number of even more irrational voters?

Ray Lopez December 6, 2012 at 9:18 am

Read the paper Andrew’. In small words: if a country is all white, like Denmark, they will become socialist since one big happy family. If mixed race, like the USA, everybody hates everybody else so they won’t like big government handouts, even though it’s true immigrants love government in general. Just as long as it’s all for their people, otherwise not. BTW there is a small premium associated with being all one race–if that economy is open–it’s very small but exists and is a point in favor of restricted immigration,for those bowling-alone-is-bad advocates like I think Caplan is.

Andrew' December 6, 2012 at 9:36 am

My goal is not to avoid national socialism, per se. We have socialism. The roads are socialized. Medicine is socialized. My goal would be to contain socialism to those things (roads, not Medicine) that make sense to be socialized or are voluntarily socialized (families, cohabitation). In Denmark, more of those things make sense due to common interests and innate equality. Here, adding more people equals more demand for cash transfers which goes to things that don’t make sense to be socialized.

Andrew' December 6, 2012 at 9:37 am

I liked this one:

“By increasing diversity, they undermine native support
for the welfare state. And on one important issue—immigration
itself—immigrants are much more pro-liberty than natives.”

Andrew' December 6, 2012 at 9:52 am

We could discuss the paper. His Haiti example is non-obvious. Haiti sucks because of the people. It is obvious we would just bring all the people of Haiti here and then let them vote? Should we do away with all the citizenship indoctrination?

Andrew' December 6, 2012 at 9:56 am

His overall point is also non-obvious to my brand of libertarians, that is that we should reduce the move to socialism by undermining common interest and thus reducing the demand for public goods and general welfare.

My point is simply that I can see the Conservative’s side. The other side won’t even let them check to see whether people are entitled to vote. We could fix that now when we have 4 more years to fix it with minimal dis-enfranchisement (because everything should hinge on not only central government, but the Executive).

Andrew' December 6, 2012 at 10:40 am

The only argument that I’m interested in (his other arguments and evidence are fine), “Protecting American Liberty?” is his weakest and least supported.

His weakest argument seems to be the one where we look differently (down?) on immigrant cultures and thus will fight harder against socialism because trust is undermined.

Here is his best argument, in my opinion.

“Migrants will flow from statist countries to freer countries and
become less statist in the process—subtly moving global public opinion
in a libertarian direction.”

This is fine but not what interests me primarily. By way of a clunky extreme analogy, let’s say we had a serial killer who wanted to move into my house. If I let him move in, I could probably convince him to be a slightly less of a serial killer. But aggregate reduction in serial killing is not what I’m interested in.

“My point is not that status quo bias completely negates the effect
of country of origin on political opinions. My point, rather, is that status
quo bias makes the political externality of immigration less negative
than it appears.”

There are also basic problems with his method of analysis. First, just as immigration is not as bad as we’ve been led to believe leaving Haitians in Haiti is not as bad as he makes sound (perhaps why the immigrant flow reversed so easily when we entered our current depression). Certainly I’d love for Haitian libertarians to be allowed to come and bring their $500 grand to buy a house. But since Haitians created Haiti, and I at least partly believe Bryan Caplan’s irrational voter thesis, we aren’t talking about many Haitian libertarians. And I’m not sure how he concludes that a person’s status quo bias doesn’t travel with them. Maybe they don’t leave home without it. Governments surely oppress, but not without some measure of the consent of the oppressed. By adding up pluses and minuses he could be completely missing some. Also he could be mis-estimating magnitudes. Maybe oppression has advantages over liberty- The US being the exception to the rule suggests that may be so. If that is the case, mixing will completely reverse Caplan’s argument.

I applaud Caplan’s cataloguing of these arguments. However, to me it describes how much work is yet to be done to make a strong case. For the record, I’m fine with the cost of (foreseeable) immigration (I’ll know invasion when I see it) which I do in fact think will cost me liberty (“no researcher has specifically tested whether AGS’s results extend to immigration” not to mention we have just been explained to how Republicans NEED to pander more to the Hispanics.) and will only possibly not cost me liberty if it definitely reduces our solidarity. We also have an entire majority party who wants us to embrace ‘the other’ because of their differences- AND pay them. And the plus side? Since I have trouble convincing my wife of some libertarian concepts I don’t suspect access to more Hispanic students of liberty is enticing. Status quo bias is not understanding.

Andrew' December 6, 2012 at 10:41 am

Any other paper suggestions for me to read? ;)

Michael G Heller December 6, 2012 at 6:20 am

There is just a tiny little problem with this kind of pseudo empirical drivel Tyler (sorry if I’m being spiteful). Spite is entirely subjective on the side of both the participants and observers. Look up the dictionary definition and you find that spite might be entirely justified even in the eyes of the most moral or Christian folk (note these are separate things). It’s what drove – or was the weapon of choice for the drivers — of all of the peaceful and praiseworthy as well as the violent and horrendous Revolutions.

Everyone hates somebody a little, at least enough to want to hurt them just a little (the 99% and the 1% of any scenario). You yourself of course have particular reason to be concerned because you are a public figure on your blog, and fully exposed several times a day to unpredictable uncontrollable spite. I fully sympathise. But there’s no need to make a fact of life into a behavioural sermon.

michael svehla December 6, 2012 at 6:47 am

What is non-spitefulness,in a word?? Spitefulness derails across the board so many things; social, industrial,cultural as well as the personal scale to the point of self-inflicted spitefulness, its a fascinating question. Is there a body of literature dealing specifically with it??

Andrew' December 6, 2012 at 8:47 am

We now deal with a million little slights that individually don’t cross the spitefulness threshold but collectively kill us slowly (and sometimes quickly and directly). That is why it is a grave crime to be annoyed with the TSA. If they didn’t suck, it woudn’t have to be a crime to justifiably complain. In some ways I consider the non-spiteful to be free-riders.

roystgnr December 6, 2012 at 8:49 am

It’s kind of hard to be spiteful when determining the final distribution of producer/consumer surplus in a voluntary, zero-sum auction, isn’t it? If this were a charity auction for the Needy Orphans Fundraiser, and I acted to drive up the price paid by the winner (while still leaving that price below what the winner was willing to pay), would one conclude that I was a spiteful person who hates non-orphans?

Assuming the answer is no, then in this experiment, where money instead appears to go from other subjects to researchers rather than from non-orphans to orphans, does that really suddenly make it impermissible to prefer the welfare of the latter over the former? Bear in mind that the poor quality of the researchers’ interpretations probably wasn’t revealed until preprints of the abstract became available.

prior_approval December 6, 2012 at 8:55 am

Is this like linking to Arnold Kling (affiliated senior scholar at the Mercatus Center, Cato Institute, etc.) – ‘the subtitle is “taking the most charitable view of those who disagree.” Arnold is a favorite of mine, along a variety of dimensions I might add.’?

Or to put it differently, can facts be spiteful? Maybe research director Tabarrok of the Independent Institute could consider that a project?

Because it remains a striking fact to me that the general director of the Mercatus Center seems unusually reluctant to acknowledge what may be the largest claimant on his time – admittedly, the couple of minutes searching google did not reveal if Prof. Cowen was teaching the formerly customary 3 courses per semester at GMU or not.

TGGP December 9, 2012 at 2:50 pm


Bill December 6, 2012 at 9:32 am

This paper actually does not posit spitefulness for the sake of spitefulness: the spiteful act was preceded by another act which ticked off the spiter.

This is totally consistent with other research: if you play the Dictator Game (I give you $10 on the condition that your partner accepts whatever split you give him/her, or you both receive nothing), offers of less than 20% split generate spiteful behaviour in the next round if the roles of the gamers are reversed.

No surprise.

And, in fact, I sometimes play a Dictator game in a graduate marketing class with students who play the dictator game as if they were suppliers and distributors having to allocate some windfall, and in later rounds of the game, the supplier asks the dealer to forgoe some little thing so the supplier can achieve a bigger award someplace else. You can guess what happens. The supplier who screwed his distributor in round 1 gets absolutely no cooperation in later rounds—particularly in situtations where there is little cost to the distributor and a bigger loss to the supplier. You can have assymetric rewards and costs, which often Dictator games do not model.

allan December 6, 2012 at 10:30 am

Profit maximization at any cost, the worship of greed, using people up like so many commodities, forcing wages down to pennies a day, throwing the elderly and sick into garbage dumps….nah, that couldn’t have anything to do with society becoming spiteful. Let’s move forward with the next IPO!!

lords of lies December 6, 2012 at 10:50 am

“I put Bryan Caplan on the “least spiteful” side of the distribution.”

gated communities and gated minds have a way of not testing a person’s threshold for spitefulness.

Andrew' December 6, 2012 at 11:35 am

If I had to guess what he means it would either be that someone who takes very extreme-on-the-surface positions is going to receive a lot of vitriol. Walter Block comes to mind, but I think some of his positions are intentionally…not exaggerated but emphasized for effect. Both get paid though. Someone like Caplan doesn’t benefit quite as much from taking the seemingly extreme contrarian positions. If the establishment didn’t get utility from trying to shout people down they either (1) wouldn’t do it or (2) the system gives them too much leash to do it.

TGGP December 9, 2012 at 2:51 pm

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