Using mathematics to identify the good guys 

Oct 28, 2010
Using mathematics to identify the good guys 
Philosophy professor Rory Smead tackles age-old questions using innovative, multidisciplinary methods of inquiry. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

The Good Samaritan helping an accident victim might really be looking out for himself, argues assistant professor of philosophy and religion Rory Smead.

“I’ll help you not because you’ll help me,” explains Smead, “but because somebody else might help me in the future if he knows I’m a nice guy.”

Smead, whose scholarship focuses on the evolutionary connections between learning, and social interaction, calls this “indirect reciprocity,” a principal of evolutionary biology in which people who are more helpful are more likely to receive help.

Some scholars have surmised that humans developed language to find out who’s helpful and who’s not, he says, adding that we use language to pass judgment on each other and maintain social norms. In other words, Smead says, people talk about each other to find out who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy.

“We gossip about each other and hear rumors,” he says. “We’re nice to people who we think are nice and we’re not nice to people who aren’t.”

Smead, who taught at the London School of Economics before joining the faculty in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, counts himself among a new breed of philosophers who tackle age-old philosophical questions using innovative, multidisciplinary methods of inquiry.

For example, he uses game theory to mathematically capture and analyze behavior in strategic situations in which one person’s success in making choices depends on the choices of others.

These highly idealized mathematical models create remarkably precise representations of strategic interaction, says Smead, but are only accurate to a point.

“Two-faced” cooperators — people who are always nice to other , but say bad things behind their backs — end up distorting the picture by making bad guys out of otherwise good guys, says Smead.

“If I consider helping you, but heard something bad about you that’s not true, then I won’t help you,” says Smead. “But now somebody knows I’m not nice, so we’re hurting each other because somebody lied.”

One of the goals of his research is to develop a more complete understanding of human language, a remarkably complex communications system compared to that of other animals.

“We have to start by understanding how conventional meaning arises, and take baby steps toward understanding human language,” says Smead, who notes that Vervet monkeys use simple auditory signaling systems to alert each other to dangerous predators.

“One thing we know is that it is fairly easy for all kinds of organisms to develop signaling systems, and the more signals they have at their disposal, the more likely they are to achieve effective communication,” he says.

Explore further: Congressional rift over environment influences public

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Consumer confidence hits five-year high in Michigan

Oct 27, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Despite Michigan’s continued economic malaise, residents’ optimism about the future is at its highest in nearly five years, according to Michigan State University’s latest State of the State ...

Broken bones and medication

Oct 05, 2010

Although one in four women over 50 develops osteoporosis, most are unaware they have the disease — something Professor Suzanne Cadarette would like to change.

Some brand names are music to our ears, research shows

Oct 18, 2010

If you're having a bad day, you may want to stay away from listening to commercials for Lululemon or Coca Cola. Or from any retailer or merchandise whose name bears a similarly repetitive phonetic sound.

Satisfying job leads to better mental health

Oct 14, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- If you want to have good mental health, it’s not enough to just have a job, you should also have a job that satisfies you, according to new research from The Australian National University. ...

Recommended for you

Congressional rift over environment influences public

1 hour ago

American citizens are increasingly divided over the issue of environmental protection and seem to be taking their cue primarily from Congress, finds new research led by a Michigan State University scholar.

Decoding ethnic labels

Jul 30, 2014

If you are of Latin American descent, do you call yourself Chicano? Latino? Hispanic?

Local education politics 'far from dead'

Jul 29, 2014

Teach for America, known for recruiting teachers, is also setting its sights on capturing school board seats across the nation. Surprisingly, however, political candidates from the program aren't just pushing ...

First grade reading suffers in segregated schools

Jul 29, 2014

A groundbreaking study from the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) has found that African-American students in first grade experience smaller gains in reading when they attend segregated schools—but the ...

Why aren't consumers buying remanufactured products?

Jul 29, 2014

Firms looking to increase market share of remanufactured consumer products will have to overcome a big barrier to do so, according to a recent study from the Penn State Smeal College of Business. Findings from faculty members ...

Expecting to teach enhances learning, recall

Jul 29, 2014

People learn better and recall more when given the impression that they will soon have to teach newly acquired material to someone else, suggests new research from Washington University in St. Louis.

User comments : 0