Researchers find support for redistribution is a function of compassion, self-interest and envy—but not fairness

July 17, 2017 by Andrea Estrada
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Economic redistribution has been a core political dispute around the world for centuries. And while intuitively fairness seems a natural explanation for why people support redistribution, researchers at UC Santa Barbara find that fairness doesn't really explain who supports redistribution or why.

Support for redistribution, they have shown, is rooted in compassion, self-interest and —but not . Their work is published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Prototypical characters

"Understanding the economic and political nitty-gritty of redistribution does not come naturally to us," said Daniel Sznycer, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Montreal, a research scientist at UCSB's Center for Evolutionary Psychology, and the paper's lead author. "But humans have been interacting with worse-off and better-off individuals over evolutionary time. This process built neural systems that motivate us to act effectively in situations of giving, taking and sharing.

"The evolved human mind," he continued, "would overlook the public policy complexities of modern redistribution and instead perceive it in terms of a much simpler mental model featuring a small number of prototypical characters—the self, the worse-off other and the better-off other—and different motives directed at each character."

To understand the logic behind support for—or opposition to—economic redistribution, the research team focused on three motives: compassion, self-interest and envy.

First compassion

"Our ancestors lived in a world without social or medical insurance, and so they benefited from covering each other's shortfalls through mutual help," said John Tooby, a professor of anthropology at UCSB and co-director of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology. "If your neighbor is starving and you have food, you can save his life by sharing with him. Later, when the situation is reversed and he shares his food with you, your life is saved."

This evolutionary dynamic selected for a spontaneous motivation to help those in need. "Compassion is the emotion that orchestrates this need-based help—help toward those less well off," Tooby said.

But people also value their own welfare and that of their families. Thus, a competing motive is self-interest. "People who acted without any regard to their own and their family's welfare were selected out over the course of evolution," Tooby pointed out. "Self-interest may limit the reach of one's compassion, and enhance one's appetite for what others have."

The third motive is envy, directed toward those better off than you. "When a rival outperforms you in some activity, your relative standing decreases," said Sznycer. "People sometimes act to chip away at their rivals' advantages, even when that also harms third parties or even themselves." Envy and the spite it generates are socially destructive, he noted, but they can make sense in the context of an ancestral world that included competitive zero-sum games."

Haves and have-nots

Our human ancestors encountered neither urban poor nor billionaires during the Pleistocene, but over they did interact with worse- and better-off community members. "The theory is that people view the cast of characters of modern redistribution—'the poor' or 'the rich'—through the lens of a set of motives that evolved to regulate interactions with their ancestral counterparts—the 'worse-off other' and the 'better-off other'," explained Leda Cosmides, a professor of psychology at UCSB and co-director of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology.

"A person's view of redistribution—whether she thinks redistribution is desirable, undesirable or a non-issue—would be a joint function of the extent to which she is compassionate, the extent to which she is envious and the extent to which she expects to personally benefit from redistribution (the self-interest component)," Cosmides said.

To test this theory, the researchers asked study participants whether they support or oppose redistribution, and measured the participants' dispositions toward compassion, envy and self-interest. They found more support for redistribution among those who feel more compassion, among those who feel more envy and among those who expect to personally benefit from redistribution.

A cross-cultural phenomenon

The researchers observed the same pattern of results in the four countries they studied: the United States, the United Kingdom, India and Israel. "The fact that the results are so similar in different countries may be due to a common evolved human nature that is shared across cultures," Sznycer said. "Moreover, the observed effects are large: If you know a person's degree of compassion, envy and expected personal gain—or loss—from redistribution, you could predict her views as accurately as if, instead, you knew only her party affiliation, that is, whether she is a Democrat or a Republican, another strong predictor of attitudes about redistribution."

While both compassion and envy make redistribution more appealing, they do so via different routes, and may lead to differing policy preferences. Four out of five participants stated that in the past 12 months they have provided assistance to the poor. According to the authors, compassion was the only motivating factor that predicted helping the poor. As expected, neither self-interest nor envy came into play.

"That is, only some of the motives that lead people to favor government-mandated redistribution also motivate people to personally help the poor," Cosmides said. "We sometimes hear that supporting redistribution is the same as wanting to help the poor, but it is not."

Envy, on the other hand, functions differently. This can be seen through studying the choices that envy motivates. "If tax rates on the rich—or anyone else—rise sufficiently, the resulting revenue collected by the government will begin to decrease because now there are fewer incentives to be productive," said Florencia Lopez Seal of the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, a co-author of the paper. "Based on this, we asked participants whether they prefer lower taxes on the rich but more resulting revenue to help the poor, or higher taxes on the rich but less money for the poor. One out of six participants preferred the latter, more spiteful option." This willingness to hurt the poor to pull down the rich was predicted only by the participant's tendency to feel envy.

"It is notable that envious people are willing to hurt the poor to get what they want," Tooby noted.

And what about fairness?

Intuitively, the theory that people want fairness seems like the most straightforward explanation for why people support redistribution. The authors also wanted to test this. To do so, the researchers measured participants' taste for fairness. The results showed that participants' taste for fairness failed to predict their attitudes about redistribution. By contrast, participants' , envy and did.

"We think it's possible that meanings of fairness different from the ones we analyzed still play a role in forming attitudes about redistribution," Sznycer said. "In any case, our work points to a more basic issue: Fairness is a key concept in the social sciences, but when you look closely you see that fairness is defined in vague and sometimes contradictory ways—sometimes it's equal outcomes, sometimes it's a level playing field, and so on."

Explore further: Political motivations may have evolutionary links to physical strength

More information: Daniel Sznycer el al., "Support for redistribution is shaped by compassion, envy, and self-interest, but not a taste for fairness," PNAS (2017). www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1703801114

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Eikka
3 / 5 (2) Jul 17, 2017
Sznycer said. "In any case, our work points to a more basic issue: Fairness is a key concept in the social sciences, but when you look closely you see that fairness is defined in vague and sometimes contradictory ways—sometimes it's equal outcomes, sometimes it's a level playing field, and so on."


You could have had asked a philosopher, and they would have told you so.

You can't scientifically study or measure something when you don't know what you're talking about, because you have to define it before you can possibly find it. You can't just assume that a label itself is meaningful. That's why a great deal of social studies are completely meaningless.
Shootist
3 / 5 (4) Jul 17, 2017
The government taking from one to give to another is theft, albeit legal theft.

Good day.
Whydening Gyre
not rated yet Jul 17, 2017
It's interesting that the arbiters of "fairness" (government mostly) also feel compelled to their own "fair share" of "fairly" distributed funds...
ShotmanMaslo
not rated yet Jul 18, 2017
Makes sense. Redistribution is certainly not fair and it is at the core merely legalized theft. However I still support it to some degree because I want every citizen to have a certain minimal standard of living, and also because what if I happen to need it too sometime in the future? So compassion and self-interest.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Jul 18, 2017
Redistribution is certainly not fair and it is at the core merely legalized theft. However I still support it to some degree

If we had compassion we wouldn't need redistribution. Redistribution is just something governments came up with in order to compensate for our general lack of compassion. (Compassion only works in small groups where you know everyone. As soon as 'people somewhere else' become an abstract concept the notion of compassion takes a nose-dive with most)

In the end I think we need to fight the source of this problem complex: Money (and the barter system in general)

Put people into a position to create what they need from raw materials or have places where anything they need can be created (and anything they no longer need recycled). If you don't have to barter for what you need then the whole idea of envy vanishes.
Eikka
not rated yet Jul 18, 2017
If we had compassion we wouldn't need redistribution.


So you mean the poor people can eat your well wishes without any need to actually give them anything?

Put people into a position to create what they need...


Which implies you give them something that you already have - otherwise you have no power to put them anywhere. In other words, you're implying an entity that has the power to redistribute wealth.
or have places where anything they need can be created


How do you have these places?

If you don't have to barter for what you need then the whole idea of envy vanishes.


You wish.

In the end I think we need to fight the source of this problem complex: Money (and the barter system in general)


Money is just a symbol of value. As long as people have different amounts of anything, there will be envy - and you can't possibly argue that everyone deserves to have the same food, the same clothes, the same housing...
drrobodog
5 / 5 (2) Jul 19, 2017
The government taking from one to give to another is theft, albeit legal theft.

Good day.

Incorrect as per the definition.
drrobodog
not rated yet Jul 19, 2017
Makes sense. Redistribution is certainly not fair and it is at the core merely legalized theft. However I still support it to some degree because I want every citizen to have a certain minimal standard of living, and also because what if I happen to need it too sometime in the future? So compassion and self-interest.


Makes sense. Capitalism is certainly not fair and it is at the core merely legalized slavery. However I still support it to some degree because I want every citizen to have a functioning society, and also because what if I happen to become a wage slave king sometime in the future? So compassion and self-interest.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Jul 19, 2017
The government taking from one to give to another is theft, albeit legal theft.

Incorrect as per the definition.

Good point.

The point of forming a society is to enhance the survivability of the individual (by being able to tide over otherwise fatal crisis points through the aid of others). In game theory parlance a society reduces the 'risk of ruin' for the individual (where 'ruin' in this case means 'death'). Government redistribution is the means by which this can be accomplished for large societies - taking from those who have no need to give to those who have a need.

Note that "satisfying a need" (redistribution) is not the same as taking/handing out resources until everyone has an equal amount. Also note that just wanting to have the same as someone richer then you is not a 'need'.
Joker23
1 / 5 (1) Jul 19, 2017
Social Sciences: An oxymoron. There is no science in Social ''studies'' just a place for people who have nothing to contribute to the economy and hence to his fellow man.
Eikka
not rated yet Jul 29, 2017
The point of forming a society is to enhance the survivability of the individual


There's another point of view: a society is the trade between individual values in order to buy good/desired behaviour out of others - in other words: I promise to do this if you do that. Basic morality follows from generally necessary principles like, don't be a hypocrite so the other guy wouldn't cheat just like you.

The individual in a society ultimately doesn't care if every other individual survives - they mostly care if they themselves and/or their closest people survive. It has nothing to do with fairness, and so any overarching government redistribution that is sold as "fair" is necessarily subjective to a particular group or class of people who share similiar circumstances, ultimately driven by that particular group's interest. It's never objectively fair, as no such objectivity can exist.
Eikka
not rated yet Jul 29, 2017
In short, the point of forming a society is not to enhance the survivability of the individual, but to enhance the survivability of -an- individual.

Each individual in a society is for themselves - not for everyone.
Eikka
not rated yet Jul 29, 2017
The government taking from one to give to another is theft, albeit legal theft.

Good day.

Incorrect as per the definition.


Which definition?

The common definition of theft is the -illegal- taking of another person's property without their consent. That gives the government the right to take any property simply by defining their own action as legal.

If you don't aknowledge the government's (basically, other people's) right to self-define themselves as legal, the question turns on its head. If you don't agree with the law, it's no longer legal to take your property and tax becomes theft.

It's a matter of whether the government, as in the limited group of people claiming the mandate of government over the multitude, has the right to dictate what laws you should follow. It's a question of whether you should be forced to give up your property because -someone else- said so.
Eikka
not rated yet Jul 29, 2017
The interesting part is when some of the people pretend that the society or the nation and country is a real thing. They may even get the majority of the population to join in the fantasy.

To have any laws, the people have to pretend that laws exist and are valid. In truth, no law has validity, no country exists, no society can be outlined, etc. etc. and everything is merely the voluntary agreement of people to play along as they believe is the best for their own interests.

Or, the less than voluntary agreement as people are punished for not following the law set up by other people before them.

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