The more we get together, together, together…

If you actually know where the headline came from, what does that say about your childhood – oh, never mind, that’s not what today’s Featured Article is about. This article is about how we can better work with each other to create a better society. A better world. A better…OK, this is getting really mushy now, so I’ll stop.

The first thing we need to hit is the idea of ‘onymity,’ which we don’t normally use in casual talk. Word processors probably aren’t even familiar with it – as I type this, Google Chrome is counting this as a spelling error. It comes from ‘onymous,’ which, according to the Oxford dictionary, comes from being named. Also according to the Oxford dictionary, it’s rare, definitely at least compared to it’s opposite, anonymous, which is something we’re more familiar with, especially when it comes to things such as internet security or being incredibly socially awkward at a party.

The other thing we need to hit is the idea of a social dilemma, which in short is a situation in which a selfish person can benefit the most unless everyone wants to be the selfish person, so nobody wins. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a good example of that, and I have no doubts that parents of multiple children may be aware of it, probably even tried it out (or you will now). So, the jerk game, really. But let me put this to you – if selfishness is the only road to success, please explain how we have civilization in the first place.

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain (Author: Frank.Defalco, 2010)

Anyway, back to social science – the authors of this week’s Featured Article ran a study on the Prisoner’s Dilemma, with one important research question: “Would reducing the anonymity of opponents in an actual social experiment promote cooperation?” 154 undergraduates from a college that specializes in economics and finance (oh, who else would they get to do this, really) were split up into anonymous and onymous conditions – the only difference really is that in the latter, the opponents knew who each other was. Then they run the experiment: who cooperates (you pay, opponent gains a lot), who defects (you get equal to what the opponent loses), and who punishes (you pay, opponent loses a lot).

So, what happened? The big result: the participants’ behaviors were statistically different between the anonymous and onymous conditions. When the opponents knew each other, they were more likely to choose cooperation, so both opponents end up gaining. Indeed, the onymous opponents had statistically higher gains than the anonymous conditions. In addition, opponents who knew each other are less likely to choose defection; there’s also less punishment, but it’s not as statistically significant.

Public Domain (Author: Henning Westerkamp)

There’s more: if you checked out the Prisoner’s Dilemma links above, you would know that this game has multiple rounds, so they started looking at the order of the opponents’ moves. When the opponents knew each other, of course there’s more cooperation and less defection. However, if the first move was punishment, the opponent countered with defection rather than punishing the first move in return. No surprise: more people in the anonymous condition used punishment as the first move. They also found that punishment does not increase cooperation in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, but that’s probably not a shock to you, dear reader – if the other person was going out of his way to make you lose, you’re probably thinking revenge.

Like many social science studies, the authors do warn not to take the results too far because of the conditions that they were in: these results come from a certain cultural background of people with certain ages and genders. If these results could be more applicable to anyone else, perhaps we need more study in a different set of conditions, perhaps with longer interactions of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Personally, I’d like to see this applied to a very different arena, a more openly-hostile one, perhaps. An actual prison? I’m thinking online communities in internet gaming. You don’t hear a lot of trash-talking between professional eSports teams on match day, do you?

And now, the mushy, touchy-feely moment, backed up by science:

“…when the cloak of anonymity is removed, successful individuals should aspire to more than just staying shy of punishing others – they should behave truly prosocially and cooperate in the face of a strong temptation to defect.” (Wang et al., 2017).

Nope. No snarky parting quip. Just some positive vibes this week. I’ll go back to being terrible next week; I’ve found the right article for that.

Featured Article: Wang Z, Jusup M, Wang RW, Shi L, Iwasa Y, Moreno Y, Kurths J. (2017) Onymity promotes cooperation in social dilemma experiments. Science Advances 3, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1601444

Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain (Author: Petty Officer 2nd Class Jason Tross (United States Navy), 2009)


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