Sunday, March 10, 2013

On the Generality of Exchange Behaviours

Joseph Kaup, an evolutionary psychology post-graduate at London University, asks:
I would also suggest that the authors consider the modern anthropological theory that altruism is, in many cases, a delayed form of reciprocity. Could these individuals working harder for fewer resources not be expecting delayed rewards? Are they perhaps the one's paying their dues in order to one day have a more cushiony lot?”
Excellent comment.  I sometimes think that those pontificating about reciprocity and altruism in pre-history should look ‘outside their windows’ a bit more.  The shallow distinction they make about altruism as a motive seem unconnected to the real world, somewhat similar to those made about Smith on self-interest.  First they isolate self-interest/altruism and then conclude, rather than see both, necessarily, taking place in their context in time between people.  To be altruistic/self-interested in oneself is somewhat meaningless.  Humans are not isolated in their self alone.  They act in social settings with other people and also have memories.  They live today in settings where the majority of people nearby are anonymous, not relatives or friends. (The ‘company of strangers’ was a great title recently).  In a small hunter/scavenger and gathering band they knew everybody intimately.
I applied this the idea of self-interest in other-regarding behaviours in my MBA ‘Influence’ course (Edinburgh Business School, 1999, also in a paperback, ‘Influencing for Results’ from Random House, 2000), which rooted influence in how you deal with other people (con-specifics) for a purpose.
In Professor Robin Dunbar’s “Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language”(Harvard) we read of the altruistic /reciprocity role among chimpanzees and humans, despite which we get theoretical abstractions from much modern literature about reciprocity and altruism in long-gone hunter groups that ignore the actual evidence of human behaviour.
We share by giving in order to legitimise our expectation of getting at some time in the future.  Someone put it well: there were no refrigerators in the African bush, so it made sense, even unintentionally, to share spare food from a hunt in the stomachs of others who were not so fortunate on that occasion, with an expectation that they would share when the roles were reversed.
Those hunting groups who shared did better that those that did not.  Of course, it is natural too that those who did not reciprocate the exchange transaction cause resentment and in the extreme were punished in future. The share motive (so-called altruism) was accompanied by the expectation of reciprocation in due course, and punished by exclusion from sharing in future (witnessed by Dunbar and observed by people today in work situations and, indeed in families).
This simple facet of exchange by reciprocation is experienced today in inter-personal relations in the workplace, including university faculties (!) and is an element of behaviour relevant in developing influence among fellow employees. 
Joseph is quite right.  Those who are blind to the generality of the roles of Smithian exchange behaviour (e.g., Graeber, Polanyi, et al) really are blinkered when it comes to understanding the deep time-proven role of human (and indeed, among con-specifics in other species) exchange behaviours. 
Adam Smith was broadly correct, within his 18th-century vocabulary, when he wrote that humans practiced ‘truck, barter, and exchange’ from the ‘first ages of man’ (WN). 'Truck' was the exchange of goods for services (now illegal since the 1820s in UK as a substitute for wages; 'Barter' was and remains the exchange of goods for goods, and today is often used to describe a haggle over prices; and 'Exchange' covers a wide range of behaviours, including, but not confined to, 'Bargaining'.
I would also suggest to Joseph Kaup that he can usefully contemplate the role of altruism and reciprocity within the ambit of exchange behaviours.


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