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