Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Beyond Selfishness

Occasionally, I come across a piece of writing that makes me want to punch the air and shout, “Yes!”  That happened just recently when I read Professor Yochai  Benkler’s article – “The Unselfish Gene” in the July-August 2011 edition of the Harvard Business Review.  What Prof. Benkler does so well, is to counter the pervasive and pernicious view that we are all born selfish; that we are driven by a narrow rationality focused only on advancing our own material interests.

I first met this view of humankind – homo economicus – many years ago in undergraduate economics classes.  I remember telling my professor at the time that I thought that this was a highly reductionist and false assumption, and a very crude platform on which to base economic theory. But what professor listens to undergraduate views?

One consequence of the self-interested rationality theory is that when building human systems we assume the worst of everyone.  We develop incentive systems based simply on self-interest, the carrots and sticks approach. Prof. Benkler gives a number of examples where self-interest doesn’t adequately explain behavior – Wikipedia, Yelp, TripAdvisor, and open source software like Apache. The Web is full of cooperative activities that offer little in terms of personal gain.

As well as common examples, Prof. Benkler also points to growing evidence that cooperation is not an aberration.  One interesting study, showed that in experiments about cooperative behavior, about 30% behave selfishly.  About 50%, “systematically and predictably behave cooperatively. Some of them cooperate conditionally; they treat kindness with kindness and meanness with meanness. Others cooperate unconditionally, even when it comes at a personal cost. (The remaining 20% are unpredictable, sometimes choosing to cooperate and other times refusing to do so.)  In no society examined under controlled conditions have the majority of people consistently behaved selfishly.”

What this means is that most of our incentive systems based on rewards, punishments, and monitoring are optimized for only 30% of the population!  We need systems that stimulate intrinsic motivations, engagement, and a shared sense of purpose.  This doesn’t mean looking at the world through rose-colored spectacles; it means having a deeper, more complex, appreciation of human nature.    

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