Reciprocal Altruism: The Evolutionary Drive Towards Not Being A Jackass

Monday, April 07, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Evolutionary Psychology

There is a reason it feels good to help others. Human beings are emotionally hardwired to help each other in times of need. But altruism isn't a moral obligation or a selfless act of kindness. At root, altruism is a biological imperative that is all about self-interest. And this predisposition has the ability to trigger guilt and anxiety if we aren't careful to repay kindnesses.

"You hear that, Judy? Where's my casserole dish?"

Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation focuses on rewards and punishments to drive behavior, and it is what our society of behaviorists focuses on.

Go to work, get a paycheck.
Don't go to work, get your ass fired.
(Unless you're a Congressman. Then you can do whatever the hell you want.)

However, there is another model besides extrinsic motivation that may be more effective in influencing behavior because it is based on internal drives. With intrinsic motivation, we do things because of how they make us feel. Changes in emotional states are great motivators for any animal.

Go to work, feel fulfilled and calm.
Don't go to work, have a panic attack.

Compelling. But this type of motivation is even more interesting in the context of relationships.

Reciprocal Altruism

In 1971, Robert Trivers published a landmark paper on reciprocal altruism, also known as "sharing"1. In it, he describes the process by which individuals evolved to help each other outside of family groups. In summary, ancestral individuals fared better when they shared. If you gave to another family when you had excess, that group would be expected to return the favor at a later date, evening out overages and shortages across a tribe.

But how could you be sure someone else would return the favor? Turns our biology took care of that for us.

According to Trivers, taking advantage of a gift without intention of repayment, or with repayment in lower amounts than what was given, would have been detrimental. Over time, groups learned who would repay debts and stopped giving to those who did not.
Happiness or relief might be associated with altruistic behavior for this very reason: to give was to ensure future security with trustworthy individuals.The guilt and anxiety we feel as a byproduct of refusing to return a favor has to do with the underlying assumption that it is bad for our overall health, once people start refusing our requests or taking things back.

"I can't borrow your power washer, Toby? I'm gonna need my weed whacker back like...yesterday."

The Predisposition to Being a Douchebag

Even studies that report increases in happiness with altruistic behavior note that people may feel overwhelmed if they give more then they get2. Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal, agrees. According to Wright, sharing may not have always been the most adaptive response. If faced with an environment where others refuse to return favors, it might be in your best interest to start cheating too2.

So, even though sharing might be hardwired, selfishness may be as well, both contained within our minds. The model we end up using is the one dictated by the environment we find ourselves in. And if everyone around you is an asshat, avoiding the anxiety that comes with being a sucker may be just as intrinsically motivating as the compulsion to give.

While we may not need one another for survival, we still seek reciprocal relationships. However, all sharing may not be done in the physical realm, such as the exchange of food or power tools. According to Wright, all manner of favors can be purchased at future dates with informational currency. Because at some points in our past, gossip about the best places to find food was even more beneficial than the food itself.

These drives are a little trickier to tease apart now, though understanding them can help individuals decide how their anxiety or guilt responses are bring triggered. Once you've figured it out, you may be able to embrace it, or at least decrease unwanted responses.

You might also understand that while you might not need to borrow Jenny's alligator pumps for an upcoming holiday party, she might be more receptive if you offer her a juicy tidbit about her neighbor.

Not that I'm saying I know something, Jenny. But...bring the shoes. 

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Topic-Relevant Resources

The Moral Animal
Journalist Robert Wright explores human nature from the perspective of evolutionary psychology.