The Pleasure of Being Nasty

This article is a transcript of the video I made with the same name. It’s based on a journal article “The Pleasure of Being Nasty” by Klaus Abbink and Abdolkarim Sadrieh, published in the journal Economics Letters.

We are humans. The scientific name for our species is Homo sapiens. Sapience means knowledge. So, by definition, we are the knowledgeable species. Economists came up with a new name for ourselves, Homo economicus, the economic man, who follows all the economic principles, who is rational, maximizes utility all the time, and only cares about his own gains.

This premise of Homo economicus fails in many experimental studies, THANKFULLY. For example, in the dictator game, where a proposer gets free money, offers to share with a responder, where economic theory suggests that the proposer shouldn’t have offered anything. It’s his money, after all. In the ultimatum game, responders can reject an offer that he or she deems unfair and they both get nothing. Responders do reject an unfair offer where economic theory suggests that the responder should accept any amount of money. Because any money is better than no money. In public good games, where the game is that everybody has to contribute their fair share to the public pot, people punish individuals who contribute below average, who keep the share for themselves and do not want to share. We are more interested in social welfare or more ethically inclined than basic economic theory suggests.

But, we humans are complicated creatures. We can be selfish, greedy, or violent. We suffer violence from random people. I know, I did. In 2006, I was hacked with knife by a complete stranger. Is this kind of behavior an anomaly? Or does the pleasure of being nasty is present corrupt all of us? In a journal article, “The Pleasure of Being Nasty”, authors Klaus Abbink and Abdolkarim sadrieh asks this question and to answer that they propose a game – THE JOY OF DESTRUCTION GAME.

The game is simple, played between two subjects. Each subject will be given an option to destroy another subject’s money. Will they destroy? There is no gain for them if they do choose to destroy. So, there economic welfare is not increased if they destroy other’s income. If they do choose to destroy, that will be just because they want to be nasty. And if they do choose to destroy, then how much?

The experimenter did not want to ask this question directly, for obvious scientific reasons. So, they created another layer. Subjects will look at 1 to 3 advertisements in magazines and complete an evaluation form for each advertisement. In one treatment, subjects will earn 80 cents for each evaluation. And then they will play the destruction game. After each subject destroys other subject’s income, they will be able to see how much of their income is destroyed by others. They called it the Open treatment. They will play for 10 rounds. In each round, they will see ad, evaluate, earn money, destroy each other’s money (or not), observe how much of their own money is destroyed by others, and move to the next round.

In another treatment, subjects will earn 120 cents for each evaluation. After each subject destroys other subject’s income, some additional random destruction will be done by nature. Subjects will not know whether the destruction was done by the opponent or by nature. They called it the Hidden treatment. However, it’s not entirely hidden. Destruction by nature has a limit. If the total destruction surpasses a limit, subject will know that at least part of this destruction is caused by the opponent. In this treatment, they will play for 8 rounds as this treatment takes a little bit longer. There were time constraints!

So, what did they find?

In the open treatment, where they could know exactly how much was destroyed by their opponent, number of destructions decreased gradually, but not by much. After the 5th round, there was no destruction till the 9th round. But then, for the final round, one partner was probably like Dr. Stranger in Avengers: Infinity War saying, “We are in the endgame now”. And the opponent was probably thinking the same, like Dolores in Westworld, “Welcome to the end of the game”. And the number of times subjects destroy other’s income shot up.

In the hidden treatment, we see the same trend, but the number of destruction were higher. They probably think that they can hide behind nature’s destruction. Same pattern was followed for how much money was destroyed. More money was destroyed in the endgame.

Next, the experimenter wanted to test whether the amount of money destroyed was dependent on their income; basically, how many ads they watched, how many evaluation forms they completed. But they found no relationship there.

The authors ended their paper with doubts and questions. Why people are generous in some games and destructive in other games? Are these the same people? Or, are there good and bad people in every game? Or, does everything depend on the nature of the game itself?

I am not sure. Let me know what you think. Till then, take care, stay safe, and don’t be nasty.


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