In the April issue of Nature, there is an fascinating artcle by Chistopher Dawes, James Fowler, Tim Johnson, Richard McElreath & Oleg Smirnov, titled “Egalitarian Motives in Humans.” The article summarizes research that the group did regarding just how willing individuals are to spend their own resources to equalize others’ resources.
In the study, a computer broke 120 students into groups of four and assigned a sum of money to each one. The subjects knew how much others in their group had but didn’t know precisely who had how much. They were then each given the option to so use some their own money to buy the right to have their cohort’s wealth augmented or reduced.
The subjects played the “game” five times, each with a different group of four, and each time they exhibited what one of the researchers calls the “Robin Hood effect.” Accordingto James Fowler, “People want to give rewards to the lowest [paid] member of the group and take away from the highest [paid] member of the group.” That is, they paid to take from the rich and to give to poor and the effect was to equalize the distribution of wealth across players. And that was true even when, in previous iterations, those same subjects had had their wealth plundered in order that it would be shared more widely.
For a Reuters story about the research, James Fowler explained that, “[i]n essence, what we found is that our taste for equality is one of the important reasons why we cooperate with each other, much more so than, say, other species of primates.”
According to Ernst Fehr, a renowned scholar at the Institute for Empirical Research in Economics at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, those findings indicate how we feel about free riders. The results, he added, “are also interesting in view of the anthropological evidence from many small-scale societies that indicates food sharing has been widespread, and that these small-scale societies developed a kind of mini–welfare state that redistributes income through food sharing regardless of hunting success.”