Team Players

In human societies, if some individuals fail to cooperate in joint enterprises, there’s often an institution that imposes sanctions on them. If there isn’t, people seem to be willing to punish them directly, even at a cost to themselves. How does that behavior get started? How does a cooperative society “get off the ground”?

In 2007, researchers from Harvard University and the University of Vienna created a model in which individuals can choose either to receive a secure income or to play a risky game. Those who choose to play the game can either pay a fee or choose not to. The fee supports an investment, the proceeds of which are distributed among all the players. If enough of the players pay the fee, then everyone benefits. But if too many players opt out of paying the fee, then the remaining donors suffer.

In order to avoid that situation, the donors are allowed to impose a penalty on the freeloaders, but this incurs a cost for them, so not every donor will choose to enforce it. So overall there are four strategies: nonparticipants don’t play the game at all; freeloaders play but choose not to pay the fee; contributors pay the fee but choose not to impose penalties on the freeloaders; and enforcers play the game and punish the freeloaders.

After many rounds of computer simulation, the researchers were surprised to find that when participation in the game was mandatory, most of the players became freeloaders, and the game fell apart because no one was willing to pay the fees. Adding enforcers at this point couldn’t save the game — they could make no headway against the freeloaders.

But when opting out of the game was permitted — when players could choose to receive a secure income instead of playing the game — many of the freeloaders simply withdrew, leaving behind contributors, enforcers, and a few freeloaders. And now the resulting game was stablest if the enforcers dominated the group, since they ensured that everyone cooperated. If contributors began to outnumber enforcers — that is, if the group became unwilling to punish freeloaders — then the freeloaders took over and everything fell apart again.

“The paradoxical result is that cooperation can be enforced by penalizing freeloaders, but only if participation in the community is voluntary,” writes George Szpiro in A Mathematical Medley. “This reminds us that discipline in the dreaded foreign legion, which legionnaires join of their own free will, is legendary. In the compulsory army, on the other hand, it is often in rather short supply.”

(Christoph Hauert et al., “Via Freedom to Coercion: The Emergence of Costly Punishment,” Science 316:5833 [2007], 1905-1907, via George Szpiro, A Mathematical Medley, 2010.)

Podcast Episode 228: The Children’s Champion

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:251012_Janusz_Korczak_monument_at_Jewish_Cemetery_in_Warsaw_-_05.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Polish educator Janusz Korczak set out to remake the world just as it was falling apart. In the 1930s his Warsaw orphanage was an enlightened society run by the children themselves, but he struggled to keep that ideal alive as Europe descended into darkness. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the children’s champion and his sacrifices for the orphans he loved.

We’ll also visit an incoherent space station and puzzle over why one woman needs two cars.

See full show notes …

“Map of the Road to Hell!!”

https://www.loc.gov/item/2013585074/

This is literally the first thing you find if you search the Library of Congress for “map of the road”. I.N. Barrillon drew it in 1858. “Reader! how far have you travelled on this dreadful road? Examine thyself! Turn ye turn ye for why will you die!!”

You can’t make out all the details here (the library has some beautiful larger scans), but it’s amazing what will land you in trouble. The major rivers in Hell are Gambling River, Drunkenness River, and Perdition River, but the tributaries include Chess Creek, Backgammon Branch, Lottery Creek, Egg Nog Creek, Cider Branch, and Lemonade Branch.

In his 1973 Atlas of Fantasy, J.B. Post writes, “The quickest way to the Great Lake of Fire and Brimstone is by the Suicide Rail Road and the Duelist’s Rail Road. One can meander along the road but shortcuts are provided for liars, drunkards, gamblers, and perjurors. All, however, finally go ‘blip’ into the Great Lake.”

“Not shown is the road to Heaven called ‘the Path of Ennui.'”

Reflection

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“All comfort must be based on discomfort. Man chooses when he wishes to be most joyful the very moment when the whole material universe is most sad.” — G.K. Chesterton, introduction to Dickens’ Christmas Books, 1907

The Camden Bench

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Camden_bench.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The London borough of Camden enshrined disapproval in 2012 with a concrete bench designed to deter sleeping, skateboarding, drug dealing, graffiti, and theft. Its surface discourages any activity but sitting, it contains no crevices or hiding places, its surface repels paint, and it weighs two tons.

The result has been called a “masterpiece of unpleasant design,” a “perfect anti-object” “defined far more by what it is not than what it is,” and an example of “hostile architecture” oppressive to the homeless. The designers, Factory Furniture, responded by saying, “Homelessness should never be tolerated in any society and if we start designing in to accommodate homeless then we have totally failed as a society. Close proximity to homelessness unfortunately makes us uncomfortable so perhaps it is good that we feel that and recognise homelessness as a problem rather than design to accommodate it.”

Whether it discourages skateboarders is debatable.

Kindred Spirits

https://www.geograph.ie/photo/5448194
Image: geograph

Cork, Ireland, displays a sculpture dedicated to the Choctaw Indian Nation. Moved by reports of the Great Hunger of 1845-1851, and recalling their own deprivation as they were removed from their ancestral lands, a group of Oklahoma Choctaw raised $170 in 1847 and forwarded it toward relief of the famine.

In 1995, Irish president Mary Robinson visited the Choctaw to thank them for supporting the Irish people, to whom they had no link but “a common humanity, a common sense of another people suffering.” In 1992 22 Irish men and women walked the 600-mile Trail of Tears, raising $1,000 for every dollar that the Choctaw had given in 1847, and passed the money on to relieve suffering in Somalia.

The Choctaw have donated to New York’s Firefighters Fund after the 2001 terrorist attacks; to Save the Children and the Red Cross in 2004 for tsunami relief; to Hurricane Katrina relief in 2005; to victims of the Haiti earthquake in 2018; and to people affected by hurricanes in Houston, Puerto Rico, and Florida. In 2008 the Choctaw Nation received the United States National Freedom Award for its efforts supporting the National Guard and Reserve and their families.

The Ben Franklin Effect

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph_Siffrein_Duplessis_-_Benjamin_Franklin_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin describes mollifying a rival legislator in the Pennsylvania statehouse:

Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.

This seems to be a real psychological phenomenon — you can sometimes more reliably make a friend by asking a favor than by doing one, or, as Franklin put it, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

In a 1969 study, subjects who had won money in a question-and-answer competition were asked to return it; those whom the researcher himself approached reported liking him more than those who’d been approached by a secretary. In another study, students were assigned a teaching task using two different methods, one in which they encouraged their students and one in which they insulted and criticized them. In a debriefing they rated the students they’d encouraged to be more likable and attractive than those they’d insulted. That may reveal a converse principle, that we devalue others in order to justify wronging them.

(Jon Jecker and David Landy, “Liking a Person as a Function of Doing Him a Favour,” Human Relations 22:4 [1969], 371-378; John Schopler and John S. Compere, “Effects of Being Kind or Harsh to Another on Liking,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 20:2 (1971), 155.)

The Dog and the Wolf

phaedrus - dog and wolf

I will, as briefly as I may,
The sweets of liberty display.

A Wolf half famish’d, chanced to see
A Dog, as fat as dog could be:
For one day meeting on the road,
They mutual compliments bestowed:
“Prithee,” says Isgrim, faint and weak,
“How came you so well fed and sleek?
I starve, though stronger of the two.”

“It will be just as well with you,”
The Dog quite cool and frank replied,
“If with my master you’ll abide.”
“For what?” “Why merely to attend,
And from night thieves the door defend.”

“I gladly will accept the post,
What! shall I bear with snow and frost
And all this rough inclement plight,
Rather than have a home at night,
And feed on plenty at my ease?”

“Come, then, with me” — the Wolf agrees.
But as they went the mark he found,
Where the Dog’s collar had been bound:
“What’s this, my friend?” “Why, nothing.”
“Nay, Be more explicit, sir, I pray.”

“I’m somewhat fierce and apt to bite,
Therefore they hold me pretty tight,
That in the day-time I may sleep,
And night by night my vigils keep.
At evening tide they let me out,
And then I freely walk about:
Bread comes without a care of mine.
I from my master’s table dine;
The servants throw me many a scrap,
With choice of pot-liquor to lap;
So, I’ve my bellyful, you find.”

“But can you go where you’ve a mind?”

“Not always, to be flat and plain.”

“Then, Dog, enjoy your post again,
For to remain this servile thing,
Old Isgrim would not be a king.”

— Phaedrus