Niceness is a mirage

Vanessa Woods in New Scientist:

Would you donate more to charity if you were being watched, even by a bug-eyed robot called Kismet? Surprisingly perhaps, Kismet’s quirky visage is enough to bring out the best in us, a discovery which could help us understand human generosity’s roots.

Altruisim is a puzzle for Darwinian evolution. How could we have evolved to be selfless when it is clearly a costly business? Many experimental games between volunteers who have to decide how much to donate to other players have shown that people do not behave in their immediate self-interest. We are more generous than necessary and are prepared to punish someone who offers an unfair deal, even if it costs us (New Scientist, 12 March 2005).

To some, this is evidence of “strong reciprocity”, which they believe evolved in our prehistoric ancestors because kind groups did better than groups of selfish individuals. But others argue that altruism is an illusion. “It looks like the people in the experiments are trying to be nice, but the niceness is a mirage,” says Terry Burnham at Harvard University, US.

More here.