Posted by Jesse Braunstein


Money and SunTzu?  I just finished reading an interesting article titled; “The Evolution of Generosity” at The Economist, but I feel like the post left much to be wanted. So I was hoping you SheBytes readers would be able to help me out, by commenting below and giving me your feedback.

The article basically tries to prove that “The human impulse to be kind to unknown individuals is not the biological aberration it might seem”, but I feel like it failed to display this for a few reasons. First, however; allow me to explain the post’s premise. The author anonymously (in classic Economist style), uses a recent psychological/economic study, done by two professors which should fit in the field of Neuroeconomics.

Amongst other things, Neuroeconomics seeks to study “how economic behavior can shape our understanding of the brain.” Besides being a wicked cool field of exploration on its own, because I am majoring in both Psychology and Economics, Neuroeconomics is of particular personal interest to me.

Now on to the study itself:

The experiment ran by Delton and Krasnow used computers and software they developed, to have these engineered “agents’ interactions”, mimic “those of economic games in the real world”. The agents who were the most successful in the games were awarded the most ““fitness units” rather than dollars”. Now although I do see the value in using computers to simulate human behavior in a study setting; in order to repeat trials infinitely, this is my problem with the Economist piece. The author takes this code, not as segments of code interacting with one another; which are obviously only as complex as the coders (people), desire, but as being somehow equitable to human behavior. Despite that the experimenters may claim that using segments of code to replace humans is valid, as long as this is a simplifying assumption (an assumption made to ease the study but not to change results), this is simply ridiculous for one simple reason:

No matter how well the experimenters think they are able to isolate the issue the study is focusing on, this is an impossible task when it comes to making anything a substitute for a human. Nothing remains a simplifying assumption, in the face of such incomprehensible and utterly complex sentient and self-aware beings, namely; us.

The study concludes by saying that, because the “costs” and “benefits” analysis of generosity showed that being generous is monetarily beneficial, there is “no need, then, for special mechanisms to explain generosity.”

Now that’s a pretty bold statement, to say the least.

I’d like to respond to this study with the words of possibly the world’s most famous, or infamous, general; Sun Tzu. Most notorious for the sense of utter brutality that tears through the pages of his treatise; The Art of War, Tzu is a powerful philosopher and thinker in his own right. While his most famous quotation is probably; “All warfare is based on deception”, I’d like to focus on another line from the same work.

Tzu writes; “Secret operations are essential in war; upon them the army relies to make its every move.”

Although on the surface, it seems that the ancient Chinese military strategist is talking about an army’s actions, I believe the quote can be extrapolated for an equally important purpose. Allow me to compare Tzu’s “war”, to life, “the army” to the human body, and the “secret operations” to the moral conscience. Seen in this light, Tzu’s comment is a philosophical view of human morality. He’s saying that, in life, people are constantly and consistently relying upon their own set of “secret operations”, their personal code of morals, in order to act.  It is nearly impossible to know what the underlying motives behind someone’s choices are, because these “secret operations” are so ubiquitous, being relied upon for “every move”.

This being the case; the experiment’s use of a computer simulation to do a routine type of cost benefits analysis, falls short of the concepts being studied. How are they supposed to find out, for instance; if a large portion of the motivation for human “generosity”, isn’t in fact the idea that people will have to reconcile (maybe even regret), not having been generous, in the first place?

Although fascinating, the study left me befuddled in that it suggests a computer simulation can grasp the development behind intangible concepts such as “trust”, “kindness” and “generosity”.

Thanks for reading (and thinking)!!

Let me know what you think below…

Jesse Braunstein is a Junior at NYU double majoring in Economics and Psychology. Jesse joined Madison Technology and in May 2011 as a summer intern. Jesse has been instrumental in utilizing his expanding background to come up with creative perspectives on the Marketing, Advertising and Business Development initiatives at both Madison Technology and Jesse’s outlook stems from an Economics and Psychology education and a deep understanding of the individual and how the individual acts within and interacts with the market.  Follow Jesse on Twitter and Facebook. Check out his

  • Their experiment would be better if Delton and Krasnow were deliberately using the non emotional non human software that they developed to prove how much economics is driven by human emotion and how people are made to feel about markets and commodities.

    Based on the theory that we all have mirror neurons, if we’re generous to each other we’re generous to our selves, It’s the way our brain’s mapped, it explains why we feel better around someone who is happy and peaceful. Mirror neurons explain why our behavior and emotions change in response to other people’s behavior. In terms of Sun Tzu’s observations, if someone is secretive, extra sneaky or dishonest, interacting with them will require a guarded approach and a restraint on trust.

    Exposure to an individual with deceptive ‘secret operations’ will only result in a mirror over time of what is essentially undesirable behavior. Although there’s value in understanding them, It’s best to avoid these types like the pest.

  • Hey Elizabeth,

    Totally agree! They could’ve used the code to display the lack of rationality in actual human practice of economics and possibly as a support for “behavioral economics”.

    I hear you about the mirror neurons, but I guess the experiment was trying to find the origins of that “first generous mover”, so to speak, which is a pretty lofty task considering the study was based off of simulation.

    Yea, The Art of War is fascinating in that it not only shows the positives and negatives of human behavior and psychology, but also how to harness both and how to use them to advantage.

  • Sun Tzu’s Art of War advocates the leader only caring for the nation, and not him or herself. He or she would be the treasure of the nation. I advise readers to look more into the book.

    Thomas Huynh, author

  • Couldn’t have said it better myself Thomas!

    Art of War is an EXCELLENT read…


  • Demian ..

    “…because the “costs” and “benefits” analysis of generosity showed that being generous is monetarily beneficial, there is “no need, then, for special mechanisms to explain generosity.””

    Pardon me if what I say sounds too simplistic. I believe these kinds of studies are little better than those which tell you “using mobile phone does/does not cause cancer” or “X per cent women are infidel.”

    In fact what the study implicitly implies is aboriginal people are less generous as they have yet to elevate themselves to the level where they see everything through the pieces of paper we call money.

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