Disappointing game theory tidbit of the day, the Joy of Destruction game shows people enjoy causing harm when they can do it without consequences: "very little destruction in the open treatment. Destruction rates start already low and then fall to zero ... this is due to fear of retaliation rather than genuine kindness. When people can hide their nasty actions behind the veil of random destruction, chosen destruction rates shoot up. Two out of every five decisions (39.4%) destroyed money. This shows that many individuals enjoy a pleasure of being nasty"

The common feature of antisocial preferences is a willingness to make others worse off even when it comes at a cost to oneself. Such behaviors are distinct from more prosocial ones, such as altruistic punishment, where me may punish someone for violating social norms. It’s more like basic spite, envy, or malice. An emerging class of economic games, such as money burning games and vendetta games, illustrates the difference. In a basic Joy of Destruction game, for example, two players would be given $10 each and then asked if they want to pay $1 to burn $5 of their partner’s income.

Why would someone pay money to inflict harm on another person who has done nothing against them? The expression and intensity of antisocial preferences appears linked to resource scarcity and competition pressures. Among pastoralists of southern Namibia for example, Sebastian Prediger and colleagues found that 40% of pastoralists from low-yield rangelands burned their partner’s money compared to about 23% of pastoralists from high-yield areas.

Antisocial preferences thus follow an evolutionary logic found across nature and rooted in such rudimentary behaviors as bacteria that release toxins to kill closely-related species: harming behaviors reduce competition and should thus covary with competition intensity. In humans, they underlie such real-world behaviors as the rate of “witch” murders in rural Tanzania. As Edward Miguel found there, these murders double during periods of crop failure. The so-called witches are typically elderly women killed by relatives, who are both blamed for causing crop failure and whose death as the most unproductive members of a household helps alleviate economic hardship in times of extremely scarce resources.

Why should the concept of antisocial preferences be more widely-known and used in the general culture? I think there are two main reasons. Although we still tend to blame Homo economicus for many social dilemmas, many are better explained by antisocial preferences. Consider, for example, attitudes toward income redistribution. If these were based on rational self-interest, anyone earning less than mean income should favor redistribution since they stand to benefit from that policy. Since income inequality skews income distribution rightward, with increasing inequality a larger share of the population has income below the mean and so support for redistribution should rise. Yet, empirically this is not the case. One reason is antisocial preferences. As Ilyana Kuziemko and colleagues found, people exhibit “last place aversion” both in the lab and in everyday social contexts. That is, individuals near the bottom of the income distribution oppose redistribution because they fear it might result in people below them either catching up to them or overtaking them, leaving them at the bottom of the status hierarchy.

The second reason why antisocial preferences should be more widely known has to do with long-run trends in resource scarcity and competition pressures. A nearly 40-year trend of broad-based wage stagnation and projections of anemic long-term economic growth mean increasing resource scarcity and competition pressures for the foreseeable future. As a result, we should expect antisocial preferences to increasingly dominate prosocial ones as primary social attitudes. In the United States, for example, the poorest and unhealthiest states are the ones most opposed to Federal programs aimed at helping the poorest and unhealthiest. We can only make sense of such apparent paradoxical human behavior by a broader understanding of the irrational, spiteful and self-destructive behaviors rooted in antisocial preferences and the contexts that trigger them.
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