Rich Man, Poor Man - can affluence be a form of poverty?

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Niccolo and Donkey
Rich Man, Poor Man

Big Questions Online

David Sloan Wilson

January 4, 2011


Poverty is often cited as the main cause of certain social pathologies, like the anti-social attitudes that cause neighborhood blight. Yet just throwing money at social problems seldom fixes them, which suggests that a lack of financial resources is not the true culprit. What are the real causes of social pathology — and can affluence actually be part of the problem?

I have been pondering this big question both as a scientist and also as someone who works with groups of people to improve their neighborhoods. As a scientist, I use my city of Binghamton, New York , as a field site for studying human behavior from an evolutionary perspective. Field studies are the bedrock of evolutionary science because species can only be understood in relation to their environments. That goes for people in urban environments, no less than hunter-gatherer tribes, chimps and bonobos in their jungle environments, and finches on the Galapagos Islands.

My colleagues and I have created an extensive database on the neighborhoods of Binghamton, including measures of neighborhood quality and median income. Dan O’Brien, my most recently minted PhD student, has also played experimental games with high school students in their classrooms. Experimental games are wonderful tools for studying the propensity to cooperate in social interactions. The results showed that students from the highest quality neighborhoods were most likely to cooperate in an experimental game, but that median income had a negative effect. The most cooperative kids came from high quality low income neighborhoods.

Once I recovered from the shock of realizing that “poverty” and “pathology” cannot be treated as synonyms, these results began to make sense. Sociologists such as Robert Putnam and Robert Sampson have long talked about “ social capital ” and “financial capital” as commodities that can substitute for each other. Why bother cooperating with others when you can pay for what you need with a credit card?

These scientific results sprang to life when I started to work with the mayor’s office and other community partners to actually improve the neighborhoods of Binghamton. In one project called “Design Your Own Park”, neighborhood groups compete to turn vacant lots and other neglected spaces into beautiful parks of their own design. I work closely with each group that enters the competition, giving me firsthand experience in how they work with each other to achieve a common goal. Some of the people in low-income neighborhoods are the most amazing networkers that I have ever seen. Working with other people to get by is part of the fabric of their lives that has become second nature to them.

In contrast, some of the so-called “nicer” neighborhoods are sadly inert. Each family keeps a tidy home and lawn and doesn’t make trouble for the others, but positive social connections are almost non-existent. When neighbors meet to discuss the prospect of designing a neighborhood park, they are often meeting for the first time. Some actively campaign against the idea, as if it’s an imposition to interact with one’s neighbor.

My experience with the city of Binghamton illustrates an important shift in our understanding of human cooperation. Economists studying behavior in experimental games were stunned to discover that many people cooperate in the one-shot prisoner’s dilemma and in other games where there is no possibility of personal monetary or reputational gains. This led to a new conception of human social preferences, sometimes called Homo reciprocans in contrast to Homo economicus , that includes a willingness to cooperate, a sense of fairness, a desire to punish transgressions, and so on. This was an improvement over Homo economicus , but it was still envisioned as set of species-typical attributes that should be found around the world.

Those expectations were challenged when experimental games began to be played in different cultures around the world, including in both small-scale traditional societies and among denizens of large market economies. The results were hugely variable. People in some cultures behaved almost as selfishly as originally envisioned by Homo economicus . People in other cultures were even more generous than the college students who typically participate in such experiments. There were even perverse outcomes for some cultures, such as punishing cooperators and making generous offers that were refused. Anthropologists intimately familiar with each culture had to explain how the rules of the games interacted with the rules of cultures to produce such variable results.

Our current understanding of human cooperation is that it does not emerge directly from human psychology, but rather from practicing it in everyday life. In cultures that routinely engage in cooperative activities, such as hunting whales, people also cooperate in the context of an experimental game. In cultures that seldom engage in cooperative activities, such as farming operations that are primarily family affairs, people fail to cooperate in the context of an experimental game. The variation among cultures on a worldwide scale is intriguingly similar to the variation among neighborhoods within Binghamton.

Perhaps there is a set of psychological dispositions shared by all people around the world, but if so, it doesn’t result in a uniformity of behavior. Instead, it interacts with local environmental conditions to produce “second natures” that can be hugely variable. Second natures can be the product of many generations of cultural evolution, and can be highly resistant to change. Just because they are cultural doesn’t make them malleable.

I worry that the affluence of modern society is eroding our capacity to cooperate at any scale, small or large. Those of us who can pay with our credit cards don’t need to cooperate, and so we forget how. When the need to cooperate arises, there isn’t a psychological module that becomes activated — we just fail to rise to the occasion. Working together is like the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall — practice, practice, practice.