The Mobbing Game

Klaus Abbink and Gönül Dogan have a horrific new paper. Horrific because despite being in a safe, experimental setting the results are all too realistic:

We introduce the experimental mobbing game. Each player in a group has the option to nominate one of the other players or to nominate no one. If the same person is nominated by all other players, he loses his payoff and the mob gains. We conduct three sets of experiments to study the effects of monetary gains, fear of being mobbed, and different types of focality. In the repeated mobbing game, we find that subjects frequently coordinate on selecting a victim, even for modest gains. Higher gains make mobbing more likely. We find no evidence that fear of becoming the victim explains mobbing. Richer and poorer players are equally focal. Pity plays no role in mobbing decisions. Ingroup members – introduced by colours – are less likely to be victims, and both payoff difference and colour difference serve as strong coordination devices. Commonly employed social preference theories do not explain our findings.

In short, the authors give experimental participants an opportunity to nominate a victim and redistribute towards themselves. Willingness to do this is common even in cases where the victims lose a lot and the bullies gain only a little. In some cases, the redistribution increases social welfare but these are also the cases where the bullies get a lot. Overall, it’s pretty clear that motivation is greed rather than increased social welfare but it would have been good to have an experiment that distinguished better the greed and social welfare cases. Importantly, distinguishing one of the players by making them poorer/richer/yellow also increased mobbing of that player.

I loved this footnote:

The labels [M,T, G, P] are also a hidden homage to the inmates Mather, Travers, Greenhill and Pearce, who escaped from a Tasmanian prison camp in a group of eight in 1822, only to get lost in the forest. When food ran out, the four conspired to apply the Custom of the Sea to the others. When no-one else was left, they turned to killing and eating one another, until only Pearce survived. All victims were chosen in decidedly non-random ways. This story is one of the great Australian foundation myths, and it was an inspiration for this study (for a dramatic reconstruction, see Van Diemen’s Land (2009)). We are confident that none of our Northern European subjects made that connection.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen.


"When no-one else was left, they turned to killing and eating one another, until only Pearce survived."

WTH? No trigger warning?! Consider me triggered!

A lot of people don't know how to survive in the wilderness, and that includes Down Under. I recall one guy, about 150-200 years ago, decided to trek across the Outback of AUS with a very heavy wooden oak desk that took two people to carry. The party ended up running out of food and water, with predictable results. I think the Aborigines saved them.

Bonus trivia: Alexander Pearce was hanged at the Hobart Town Gaol at 9am on 19 July 1824, after receiving the last rites from Father Connolly.[5] It is reported that just before he was hanged, Pearce said, "Man’s flesh is delicious. It tastes far better than fish or pork."[6]

Enjoyed reading this, very good stuff, thanks.

Let me guess the name of the game is "The Democrat party".

"This story is one of the great Australian foundation myths"

What?? I guess that explains a lot...

Ha. I've never heard it before and I grew up partly in Tasmania. Australian foundation myths are things like Cook, Ned Kelly, Burke & Wills..

"who escaped from a Tasmanian prison camp ... only to get lost in the forest": absurd! There was no forest in Tasmania because otherwise a few score troops couldn't have marched across the island exterminating all the Abos. Tasmania is, in fact, flat as a billiard table and without botanical cover of any kind. And tiny.

Just in case you don't understand Dearieme's sense of humour there were 2,200 people in the "Black Line". At times there would have been an average of over 130 meters between them, if they'd been in a straight line, in terrain that was rugged and usually forested. They exterminated 2 Australians.

The WKPD article is pretty doltish: "a massive six-week military offensive known as the Black Line, in which 2200 civilians and soldiers formed a series of moving cordons stretching hundreds of kilometres across the island". As with so much of Australian pseudo-history there's a puzzle; how can anyone be so dim as to believe it?

Yeah, sure, we'll flush our history down the drain for you. The war in Tasmania never happened. There never were any aboriginal Tasmanians. They were all just cosplayers. All the British who died in the war were actually killed by drop bears. And the Tasmanians didn't die because, as mentioned, they didn't exist in the first place.

Seriously, how weak do you have to be to pretend a war never occurred because it somehow hurts your self image because you happen to share a skin tone with John Bowen? Or is it just that you don't believe the British had the capacity to be unkind? That would be a quick course. The entire history of the British Empire with all the nasty bits cut out.

well, 'Mobbing' is the essence of democracy (majority versus minority)

it's especially evident in the popular 'Tax the Rich' policies, advocacy, and progressive taxation systems

on what ethical basis do 'majorities' automatically have the authority to command 'minorities' ... controlling the property, liberty, lives of a minority(?)

(American elections are fundamentally about mobbing games)

I think this is in the ballpark but not necessarily on home base. Democracy is really a substitute for warfare (I have a majority of men and therefore statistically greater odds of victory all things being equal). But warfare is always expensive and risky despite something looking like a sure thing, and not all sins of the majority (read mob...) go unpunished in this life.

I can't remember which enlightenment thinker said it, but democracy derives its power from the threat of violence, and that the vote is a symbolic representation of power that can be converted to strength on a battlefield...were that to be necessary.

You can draw the analogy multiple ways. Mobbing = any spontaneous in-group/out-group behavior. Insert race, religion, class, political party, or whatever differentiating factor you like.

"on what ethical basis do 'majorities' automatically have the authority to command 'minorities' ... controlling the property, liberty, lives of a minority(?)"

Probably the same basis that those minorities have for commanding the majority, you know?

I bet we have extensive evolved-in strategies for dealing with mobs, witch hunts/purity spirals, and the like. These are emergent properties of our societies at times, and they're things it definitely pays to have a good burned-in strategy to deal with. And that probably also explains a lot of the crazy-seeming behavior from apparently rational and sane people when they get into mob/witch-hunt/purity spiral situations. A different set of modules gets engaged, and most people have their normal rational and moral thought processes swamped by those modules.

Two wolves and a sheep voting on dinner.

I am not arguing that such behaviour is in human nature. But then, how in hell, have we achieved any cultural evolution at all? Is it only infighting between different cultures that makes us need a competitive edge over other cultures? If this is correct, couldn't the whole idea of world-wide peace be counter-productive? As soon as there is no infighting between countries, do we turn onto ourselves? Is that why all great empires, that eclipsed contemporaries, have fallen?

Hasn't this tension been there from the beginning? My recollection of accounts of current hunter-gatherer ecosystems is that you could (a) be a part of a band of maybe 50 people that enjoys a comparatively harmonious and egalitarian social structure but is vulnerable to invasion, or (b) be a part of the 200-person outfit that can defend against invasion, but you gotta live with more internal oppression and inequality.

Here's a rabbit hole for you: - English Court case about necessity as a defense of killing in a shipwreck - a thought experiment about murder - a verbose legal thought experiment about necessary cannabalism

that's what happened to my morning, in case you're wondering

Remember when that game show The Weakest Link was popular? Contestants voted on who to fire from the show. It reminds me of this study. But why didn't that show prompt as much moralizing on the sad state of the human condition that this paper is? (I don't remember folks saying that show was "horrific".) Maybe it is because games are games? Maybe highly engineered games in a victimless -- perhaps even fun -- environment don't adequately sample the full complexities of human behavior?

Or instead, does the test subjects' participation in the game -- and maybe also the fact that none of them spontaneously joined together to sing Amazing Grace -- really reveal one of the sickest, darkest truths of humanity?

I know which one I'll pick.

The Weakest Link had a nominally strong coordination artefact : you were supposed to vote off the weakest player in a round.

However no penalty was applied for voting against any other player. optimum strategy especially in later rounds was to vote for the strongest player instead. Although this lowered (slightly) the size of the final pot it greatly increased ones chances of receiving it.

Assuming one could answer all questions the best strategy was to appear live a too weak (not contributing) or too strong (threatening).

"neither" too weak or too strong. Damn autocorrect. We need an edit function for those of us contributing in less than ideal environments (narrating lying down whilst being jumped on by a 4 year-old...).

Not a straight replication but this video is essentially the same concept. A bit hard to watch.

Amazing video, thank you so much for this.

We setup a game about people mobbing/defection on others for personal gains and the find it surprising that mobbing occurs? Moreover, we want to draw conclusions about the state of human nature?

Seems odd. Incentive matters and we place the players in a constraint incentive environment.

Just doesn't seem like it's telling us anything about man or society other than when things really suck people will be forced into making bad choices.

I think the moral of this game, as is that of the PD game: When faced with these types of payoffs look for ways to change the payoff matrix and you can realized better outcomes. Put slightly differently (and crudely) tell the jailer to eff off.

Welcome to libertarianism.

For some years I've been using a metaphor like this to explain the incidence of unemployment in recessions to principles students.

I tell them that recessions are like lions chasing a herd of antelope in a documentary: the recession is the lion, the workers are the herd of antelope. This works, in that most of the costs fall on one antelope (in the same way that recessions have deeply uneven distributional consequences), and the remaining antelope go about their business and ignore the fallen one (in the same sense that people often ostracize the unemployed).

It is especially frightening to poll a class, and ask if they would be willing to force one of their own into unemployment if they could divide up their wages (I've done this for years, but it is pretty close to the mobbing game). The results are shocking: usually about 70-80% of a class will vote in favor of such a proposal.

The mobbing game was not conducted by representatives of the mob but directly by all of the mob. That distinction is significant in representative democracy. Indeed, soak the rich in the U.S. is belied by actual experience. The populist mob who elected the president not only failed to soak the rich but elected a president who conferred enormous riches on the rich with a debt financed $1.5 trillion tax cut that will have to be paid sometime in the future by the not rich including many members of the mob and their descendants. If the mob had voted directly for or against the tax cut, the mob may well have voted to soak the rich, but as it was, the mob was satisfied with angry rhetoric from the president about black and brown people and immigrants.

If you believe the Rene Girard theory that scapegoating was so fundamental for the development of civilization then it would not be a surprise to see the same behaviour in slightly different circumstances.

People interested in this topic should enjoy watching the AMC miniseries 'The Terror' .
I'll just leave it at that to avoid spoilers.

This is what democracy looks like.

For some value of "democracy."

Mick Thomas wrote a song about that incident

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