Based on classic economic theory, you might expect free-rider miser to receive these punishments – and indeed they were. Surprisingly, however, the more selfless participants were also targeted – even if they contributed more than their fair share to the wealth of others.
The observation is now reproduced in many other experiments. In a similar public goods game, for example, participants were asked if they would like to kick out members of their group. Astonishing, they kicked out extreme altruists as often as the worst free-riders. In a way, selfishness and altruism were seen as morally equivalent.
Surprisingly, this trend seems to emerge early in life – around the age of eight. And while the magnitude of the effect may vary depending on context, it appears to be present to some extent in most cultures, suggesting that it may be a universal trend.
Reciprocity and reputation
To understand the origins of this seemingly irrational behavior, we must consider how human altruism emerged in the first place.
According to evolutionary psychology, wired human behaviors should have evolved to improve our survival and our ability to pass our genes to another generation. In the case of altruism, generous acts might help us foster good relationships within the group which, over time, help build social capital and status.
“Earning a good reputation can come with benefits such as occupying a more central position in the social network,” says Nichola Raihani, professor of evolution and behavior at University College London and author of The Social Instinct. It could mean that we ourselves have more help when we need it. “And it’s also linked to reproductive success.”
But above all, reputation is “positional”: if one person increases, others fall. This can create a strong sense of competition, which means we are always alert to the possibility of other people getting ahead of us, even if they reach their status out of altruism. We will be especially irritated if we think the other person was only after these reputation benefits, rather than acting out of a genuine interest in others, as this can suggest a cunning and manipulative personality more generally.