Embracing Evolutionary "Cheating"

The most important question of the Hendricks Forum was this: were all researchers CITI certified? If not, did they share this secret with their subjects? Does the scientists have secret brainscans showing which “terror modules” light up when he informed his participants-slash-victims of his wildly unethical research methodologies? We may never know.

What we can know, however, is how Alford & Hibbing’s findings can be immediately applied to the classroom. Consider a common learning situation: two students are studying for a graded, non-curved assignment, and one student is in a position to help another. Many educators have believed that the best way to deter one student from doing work to another is to increase penalties and be on the look-out for side-payments (popularity granted to a smart but dorky student by popular but dull ones, for instance). However, if people will do more work for another than the other would ask for if the issue of representation is involved, then the range of potential cheaters becomes much broader. No longer are we looking only for those who want to increase their own station, but at altruists who are completing educational “puzzles” for another student.


We can contrast the academic cheating behavior of the “economic man” and the “wary cooperator” in a simple experiment. Use a subject and a confederate, and inform them that because of a last-minute conflict, the University has asked them to take their skill tests unsupervised in the same room at the same time. Full credit will go to right answers, and no credit will go to wrong answers. Make it possible for a student to help another cheat, but after the end of the run inform him that he may accuse the other of cheating. Add a point to the cheater’s score, but inform the subject that the accusation will zero out the confederate’s There are four conditions with four possible responses to test whether students faced with the dilemma of helping another cheat will act like wary cooperators or rational actors:

The conditions:

  • Condition I. Introduce Subjects. Confederate suffering.
  • Condition II. Introduce Subjects. Confederate offers bribe.
  • Condition III. Don’t introduce Subjects. Confederate suffering.
  • Condition IV. Don’t introduce Subjects. Confederate offers bribe.

The responses:

  • Response A. Subject Assists. Subject keeps silent.
  • Response B. Subject Assists. Subject informs on confederate.
  • Response C. Subject Doesn’t Assist. Subject keeps silent.
  • Response D. Subject doesn’t Assist. Subject informs on confederate.

Standard economic theory gives the following predicted paths

  • If Condition I, should choose Response D, least likely to favor Response A
  • If Condition II,should choose Response B, least likely to choose Response C
  • If Condition III, should choose Response D, least likely to favor Response A
  • If Condition IV, should choose Response B, least likely to follow Response C

Classroom teachers, of course, view “D” as the only acceptable path.

Because of the conflicting possible frames this situation could be put in, I do not believe we can yet create a “genetic factors” model with this same degree of precision. However, we can identify where it flatly disagrees with the economic model of cheating.

Under Condition I, D should be the least likely outcome. Under introduction, the subject should be prepared to help the confederate with no personal compensation. Likewise, free-riding against an innocent but suffering player is doubtful. Likewise, under Condition III D should also be the least likely outcome. (Two variations are not shown in this mini-experimental design: confederate suffers and offers bribe and confederate doesn’t suffer and doesn’t offer bribe. The first possibility confounds fault and no-fault non-cooperation, while the second should have zero “cheating” under both models. However, that doesn’t mean it’s entirely useless – it may be worthwhile, for instance, to see if the subject would retaliate if his requests for assistance from the confederate is rebuffed by accusing the confederate of cheating, even if we make the reward for turning in a cheater negative!).

A finding that confirms wary cooperation would have profound impact in how we deal with cheaters. If we find that the most pro-social students cheat out of empathy, this further throws the value of individual work into doubt. Instead, work should be group-oriented as much as possible, because this will exploit the student’s natural desire to help a peer in need while demarcating out-group-members as non-peers for the purposes of cooperation.

2 thoughts on “Embracing Evolutionary "Cheating"”

  1. RevG,

    “Does this account for individuals performing random acts of kindness? “

    I'm not sure about “random,” but about 5-10% of the population in economic games are straight-up altruists. The question is what extent this behavioral phenotype is associated with a genotype.

    “Is there a genetic predispossession among the nonsaintly towards employing the Golden Rule when it is expected to be reciprocated and withheld from suspected 'cheaters' and 'free riders'?”

    Even Vampire Bats have this! They'll regurgitate blood to other vampire bats, except those who have a fat belly and bloodless faces. This are signs that indicate they have blood to give but haven't been “randomly kind” to other bats.

    “Are you secretly seeking to explicate a neurophysicalogical gap in intelligent design that the teachings of Jesus attempt to bridge?”

    I'm not sure what you mean here. Could you rephrase?

    “Is your blog a 5GW attack on the religious right? Would it be neutralized if you either admitted it or denied it?”

    hehe — a fun thought, but no. :-) A number of the popularizes of the field are atheists and do not hide about it (Richard Dakwins, Steven Pinker, and Matt Ridley appear to hang around together [1]), but to me this reflects more the odd habit of biologists to be atheists than anything real. We have eyes so we may see. This does not mean that the visual world is false. We have ears so we may hear. This does not mean the auditory world is false. We have a language module so we may listen, and a cheater detection module so we may know deceivers. Does this mean there are not words to hear or liars to avoid?

    Of course not, but Dawkins et al. see a neurophysiological adaption for believing in God as somehow evidence against God. Replace “God” with any other concept and the statement is absurd, but I guess militant atheists cling to any hope they have. (See also this Wired article [2] on the cultishness of their movement)

    I've had my disagreements with the religious right, but I'm a conservative catholic, which I have to imagine is pretty close.

    [1] http://www.amazon.com/God-Delusion-Richard-Dawkins/dp/0618680004
    [2] http://wired.com/wired/archive/14.11/atheism.html

  2. Does this account for individuals performing random acts of kindness? Is there a genetic predispossession among the nonsaintly towards employing the Golden Rule when it is expected to be reciprocated and withheld from suspected 'cheaters' and 'free riders'? Are you secretly seeking to explicate a neurophysicalogical gap in intelligent design that the teachings of Jesus attempt to bridge? Is your blog a 5GW attack on the religious right? Would it be neutralized if you either admitted it or denied it?

  3. ” “Are you secretly seeking to explicate a neurophysicalogical gap in intelligent design that the teachings of Jesus attempt to bridge?”

    I'm not sure what you mean here. Could you rephrase?”

    My understanding of the teachings of Jesus are that one is instructed to exercise the Golden Rule to all, even those who do not exercise it themselves. A Vampire Bat following this teaching would regurgitate blood to “those who have a fat belly and bloodless faces” as people who would follow this teaching would exercise the Golden Rule towards obvious 'cheaters' and 'free riders' and not perform a judgement that up to God to make. Therefore, it would seem that ethnomethodology indicates the intelligent design of our neurophysicalogical setup is flawed and Jesus teaches the remedy.

  4. In a theological sense God teaches Love, with Faith and Hope as well, but the Gold Rule is often cited, so…

    Your interpretation definitely seems close to C.S. Lewis's, and he spoke well of the emptiness of biological imperatives in his fiction, as well as his non-fiction work. And I think that it's generally agreed our bodies on earth are imperfect, and that God will give us perfect bodies in heaven. Thus Jesus is the Way to the solution.

    Still, it is impossible for us to save ourselves. We are in this world until God gives us a new one. We certainly can use what we know to try to be kinder, and more faithful, and more hopeful. But we won't get to the solution ourselves.

    Additionally, God instituted governments to keep us from free-riders (Romans 13:1-10). Christianity is an inherently political religion [4]. We should not shirk our duties to punish free-riders out of a misguided meekness.

    Remember that pure altruists, those that give and give, are free-riders themselves. They are second-order free-riders and disrupt group existence just as must as the first-order free-riders. The most pro-social altruists are those that help the helpful and shun the hateful.

    Or as Christ put it [5]:

    “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.”

    [1] http://www.amazon.com/Silent-Planet-Space-Trilogy-Book/dp/0743234901
    [2] http://www.amazon.com/Perelandra-Scribner-Classics-C-S-Lewis/dp/0684833654
    [3] http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans%2013:1-10&version=31
    [4] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/03/30/jesusism-paulism-introduction-the-revolution-of-early-christ.html
    [5] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/03/17/review-of-global-brain-by-howard-bloom.html

  5. RevG –

    EXACTLY right. The thing is not genetic determinism, or environmental determinism, but genetic-environmental interaction. You understand perfectly.

    I tried to make this point about genetic-environmental interaction in the second full paragraph of the proposal, but it's definitely something I could strengthen.

    Thanks!.

  6. This post reminds me of the power of questions: Ask one, and you are sure to manipulate, since those who hear questions quite naturally seek an answer (and will answer aloud/in writing or internally.)

  7. Curtis,

    Indeed. A good teacher is a good manipulator, [1] as well as a good exploiter [2], of human foibles.

    RevG,

    You've figured it out already, but my out-of-place comment was actually in response to our discussion over at “Genetics and Warfare in the Age of Non-State Actors”
    [3]

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/01/22/liberal-education-part-i-the-petty-troika.html
    [2] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/10/13/learning-evolved-part-i-darwinism-cognitivism.html
    [3] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/10/26/genetics-and-warfare-in-the-age-of-non-state-actors.html

  8. Back in the 19whatever, I took an upperlevel-undergrad / grad PoliSci course at UW-Madison called History of American Political Thought. It was a great class – I think I was the only non polsci undergrad or grad student in the class.

    The prof was Fowler, if I recall correctly.

    He did one thing that I thought was really cool, but for which about 1/3 of the class found confusing and frustrating.

    When lecturing say on Thomas Paine, if he was asked questions by students, he would answer as Thomas Paine would have answered his critics.

    I thought is made the class much richer. It is many years later and I still remember things I learned in that class.

  9. Purpleslog,

    It sounds like Fowler knew exactly what he was doing. It's one thing to just memorize facts. To be able to act on knowledge, though, is the sign of true understanding. By talking in Paine's voice, he was trying to help students comprehend Paine — mentor them in Paine's thinking style — and not just teaching to a test. That takes a cleverer prof. I admire that.

    It sounds like some students weren't experienced enough in political philosophy to follow, though.

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