Would you return a lost wallet?

The researchers in this 2019 Swiss/US study intentionally “lost” > 17,000 wallets under experimental conditions:

“We conducted field experiments in 40 countries to examine whether people act more dishonestly when they have a greater economic incentive to do so, and we found the opposite to be true. Citizens were more likely to return wallets that contained relatively larger amounts of money. Neither nonexperts nor professional economists were able to predict this result.

When people stand to heavily profit from engaging in dishonest behavior, the desire to cheat increases but so do the psychological costs of viewing oneself as a thief.”


The study did well in some aspects, including publicity. However:

1. The researchers admitted in the final paragraph:

“Using average reporting rates across countries, we find substantial variation in rates of civic honesty, ranging from 14 to 76%. This variation largely persists even when controlling for a country’s gross domestic product, suggesting that other factors besides a country’s wealth are also at play.”

Yet the paper’s first page contained the above graphic, which used each country’s GDP as a dependent variable! Wasn’t a behavioral economics study of honesty required to present their data honestly, and use factors that were experimentally significant?

2. “Other factors..at play” were relegated to the supplementary materials. The paper was only three-and-a-half pages long, so there was room for further explanations.

Here’s one comment on cultural differences from a Chinese PhD student:

“Biased design. In China (and Asian countries), people seldom use email, and our merit is to leave things untouched (“路不拾遗“:no one picks up lost articles in the street (idiom)).”

3. The study design had nothing to do with avoiding taxes, but three of the four sentences in the paper’s first paragraph did. This impressed as pointless.

https://science.sciencemag.org/content/365/6448/70 “Civic honesty around the globe” (not freely available)

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Which communities deserve your membership?

This 2015 California/Oxford review described the interplay between an individual and their group membership from an evolutionary biology viewpoint:

“Many central questions in evolutionary biology rely on understanding how individual-level and group-level selective processes interact to shape phenotypic variation and specialisation. Individuals can aggregate into groups, and the composition of these groups, populations, or communities (herein group phenotypic composition or GPC) can affect group-level dynamics and self-organisation.

Research across a range of disparate topics will benefit from simultaneously developing an understanding of how GPC affects individual fitness [genetic fitness, not physical fitness] and exerts selection on individual phenotypes, and assessing how individual phenotypes respond to GPC.

GPC can be a function of the phenotypes of its members or an emergent property that is not attributable to any single individual, such as the mating system. GPC is also an emergent property of genotypes and their patterns of expression.

GPC can affect individual fitness by influencing the overall performance of the group on collective tasks, affecting all the members of any given group equally, or by affecting the relative performance of different phenotypes within groups. For instance, a group with more aggressive individuals can be more successful at foraging, but aggressive individuals can have a higher fitness than non-aggressive individuals because they can monopolise a larger share of the total resources.

Individuals can respond to the effect of GPC by altering the phenotypic composition of the group (for example by controlling access to the group) and/or by changing their own phenotype.”

See my Individual evolution page for more on the topic of human individuals “changing their own phenotype.”


The review provided specific examples to illustrate each point of the overall framework. The authors seldom mentioned human examples, although many of the discussion items applied. Two of their points that weren’t necessarily applicable to human groups were:

  • Benefits from reducing competition
  • Altruism wasn’t viewed as an individual trait.

The authors didn’t use human-specific examples in their framework. For example, they mentioned division of labor, which benefits both animals and humans. There was no mention of applying capital to efforts, which is thought to be specific to humans, although reuse of tools by crows and chimpanzees may be animal examples.

I’d guess that the authors didn’t refer to humans often because that may have added the human trait of unforced individual choice. Unlike other species, we have the capability to direct much of our own lives, and choose the communities to which we belong.


A few questions about our group membership decisions:

  • Do we choose group memberships based on how the group recognizes and facilitates the unique individual each of us is?
  • How do we benefit as an individual when we become default members of communities by not making choices?
  • What individual benefits may we receive by opting out of default groups?

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169534715001846 “From Individuals to Groups and Back: The Evolutionary Implications of Group Phenotypic Composition”

Confusion may be misinterpreted as altruism and prosocial behavior

This 2015 Oxford human study of altruism found:

“Division of people into distinct social types relies on the assumption that an individual’s decisions in public-goods games can be used to accurately measure their social preferences. Specifically, that greater contributions to the cooperative project in the game reflect a greater valuing of the welfare of others, termed “prosociality.”

Individuals behave in the same way, irrespective of whether they are playing computers or humans, even when controlling for beliefs. Therefore, the previously observed differences in human behavior do not need to be explained by variation in the extent to which individuals care about fairness or the welfare of others.

Conditional cooperators, who approximately match the contributions of their groupmates, misunderstand the game. Answering the standard control questions correctly does not guarantee understanding.

We find no evidence that there is a subpopulation of players that understand the game and have prosocial motives toward human players.

These results cast doubt on certain experimental methods and demonstrate that a common assumption in behavioral economics experiments, that choices reveal motivations, will not necessarily hold.

When attempting to measure social behaviors, it is not sufficient to merely record decisions with behavioral consequences and then infer social preferences. One also needs to manipulate these consequences to test whether this affects the behavior.”

The researchers are evolutionary biologists who had made similar points in previous studies. They addressed possible confounders in the study and supporting information, and provided complete details in the appendix. For example, regarding reciprocity:

“Communication was forbidden, and we provided no feedback on earnings or the behavior of groupmates. This design prevents signaling, reciprocity, and learning and therefore minimizes any order effects.

It might also be argued that people playing with computers cannot help behaving as if they were playing with humans. Such ingraining of behavior would suggest a major problem for the way in which economic games have been used to measure social preferences. In particular, behavior would reflect everyday expectations from the real world, such as reputation concerns or the possibility of reciprocity, rather than the setup of the game and the true consequences of choices.”


Some of the news coverage missed the lead point of how:

“Economic experiments are often used to study if humans altruistically value the welfare of others.

These results cast doubt on certain experimental methods and demonstrate that a common assumption in behavioral economics experiments, that choices reveal motivations, will not necessarily hold.”

Here are several expressions of beliefs in one news coverage article where the author attempted to flip the discussion to cast doubt on the study. It was along the lines of “There’s something wrong with this study (that I haven’t thoroughly read) because [insert aspersion about sample size, etc.]” What motivates such reflexive behavior?


This study should inform social behavior studies that draw conclusions from flawed experimental designs. For example, both:

based their findings on a video game of popping balloons. Neither study properly interpreted their subjects’ decisions per the current study’s recommendation:

“When attempting to measure social behaviors, it is not sufficient to merely record decisions with behavioral consequences and then infer social preferences. One also needs to manipulate these consequences to test whether this affects the behavior.”

http://www.pnas.org/content/113/5/1291.full “Conditional cooperation and confusion in public-goods experiments”


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Do scientists have to perpetuate memes in order to keep their jobs?

I was disgusted by this 2015 Korean human study.

Is the current state of science such that researchers won’t be funded unless there’s an implicit guarantee that their studies will produce politically correct findings? It seemed that the primary reason for the study’s main finding of:

“Neural markers reflecting individual differences in human prosociality”

was to perpetuate that non-causal, non-explanatory meme.

Per If research treats “Preexisting individual differences” as a black box, how can it find causes for stress and depression? it wasn’t sufficient in 2015 to pretend that there are no early-life causes for the observed behavior and fMRI scan results of the subjects. Such a pretense leads to the follow-on pretense that later-life consequences are not effects, but are instead, a “mystery” due to “individual differences.”

The researchers asserted:

“Our present findings shed some light on the mystery of human altruism.”

Weren’t the findings of the People who donated a kidney to a stranger have a larger amygdala 2014 study of extraordinary altruists big enough clues for these researchers to feature the amygdala in the fMRI scans?

The main experiment had the female, college student, right-handed subjects try to “reduce the duration of exposure to stressful noise.” Why weren’t brain areas that are especially susceptible to stress like the hippocampus featured in the fMRI scans?

The secondary reason for the study seemed to be to perpetuate the harmful “self-sacrifice = good, individuality = bad” meme.

The main reason this meme is harmful is that it condones a subset of people’s unconscious act outs. People are encouraged to avoid conscious awareness both of who they really are and of what drives their feelings, thoughts, and actions.

Despite not asking the subjects directly about either their motivations or their histories, these researchers asserted that the study demonstrated:

“The automatic and intuitive nature of prosocial motivation.”

What was largely observed were the subjects’ unconscious act outs, not some higher-order functions as the researchers mischaracterized them.

Similar to Who benefits when research promotes a meme of self-sacrifice? I suspect that a major motivation behind scientific justification for memes like the self-sacrifice promoted by this study is to rush people past what really happened in their lives.

I wonder what value we would place on the “social norms internalized within an individual” if we felt and honestly understood our real history.


This study and the Do you know a stranger’s emotional motivations for smiling? study had the same reviewer, and shared several of the burden-of-proof problems. Both studies demonstrated a lack of researcher interest in finding causes for the observed effects.

What was the agenda with these researchers and the reviewer? Why would the researchers glorify factors that cause difficulties when one tries to live a life of one’s own choosing?

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/25/7851.full “Spatial gradient in value representation along the medial prefrontal cortex reflects individual differences in prosociality”

A study on online cooperation with limited findings

This 2015 Cambridge/Oxford study found:

“Global reputational knowledge is crucial to sustaining a high level of cooperation and welfare.”

Basically, the subjects learned how to “game” a cooperative online game, and the researchers drew up their findings.

To me, the study demonstrated part of the findings of the Reciprocity behaviors differ as to whether we seek cerebral vs. limbic system rewards study, the part where the cerebrum was active in:

“Reputation-based reciprocity, in which they help others with good reputations to gain good reputations themselves.”

The current study ignored how people’s limbic system and lower brain areas may have motivated them to cooperate.

I didn’t see how excluding people’s emotional involvement when cooperating with others improved the potential reach of this study’s findings. Doesn’t a person’s willingness to cooperate in person and in online activities usually also include their emotional motivations?

The findings can’t be applied generally to cooperative motivations and behaviors that the researchers intentionally left out of the study. The study’s findings applied just to the artificial environment of their experiment, and didn’t provide evidence for how:

“Cooperative behavior is fundamental for a society to thrive.”

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/12/3647.full “The effects of reputational and social knowledge on cooperation”


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Problematic research on oxytocin: If the study design excludes women, its findings cannot include women

This 2014 study’s findings that “the hormone oxytocin promotes group-serving dishonesty” can’t apply generally to humans because its subjects were ALL men.

Regarding oxytocin, the researchers certainly knew or should have known previous studies’ findings about sex differences, as did Is oxytocin why more women than men like horror movies? which cited:

“Oxytocin modulates brain activity differently in male and female subjects.”

Regarding differing reciprocal behaviors, the researchers also knew or should have been better informed about associated brain areas through studies such as Reciprocity behaviors differ as to whether we seek cerebral vs. limbic system rewards and its references.

And how could the study produce reliable, replicable evidence of:

Dishonesty to be plastic and rooted in evolved neurobiological circuitries”

when the researchers performed NO measurements of “neurobiological circuitries” that supported that finding?

What was the agenda in play here? What did the female Princeton reviewer see in this study that advanced science?

http://www.pnas.org/content/111/15/5503.full “Oxytocin promotes group-serving dishonesty”


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Can psychologists exclude the limbic system and adequately study awareness and social cognition?

This 2014 Princeton human study was proof that cognitive researchers are stuck in the cerebrum. That and gadgets.

The researchers didn’t measure limbic system or lower brain areas, yet from their use of cartoon faces and magnetically zapping their subjects’ brains they proclaimed:

“The findings suggest a fundamental connection between private awareness and social cognition.”

For just one example of the gross omissions of the study’s design, look at the limbic system’s part in “social cognition” for The amygdala is where we integrate our perception of human facial emotion.

And it’s a very limited scope of “private awareness” that excludes conscious awareness of what’s in our own feeling, instinctual, and impulsive levels of consciousness.

http://www.pnas.org/content/111/13/5012.full “Attributing awareness to oneself and to others”


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