In the Treatises on the Origin of Inequality, the political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau imagines a hypothetical prehistoric deer hunt. Any hunter working alone can catch a hare, but hares are not very fleshy. Working together, a group can work together to take down a deer, but only if everyone is committed. When someone sees a hare and decides to go after it, the deer escapes and everyone gets hungry.
Economic studies in which college students in the US played simulated versions of the deer hunt indicated that at some point, couples would realize that it was in their mutual interest to commit to hunting the deer and that they would fall into “a efficient and cooperative balance.” But it turns out that American college students are not a particularly representative subgroup of humanity and cannot necessarily provide in-depth insights into human nature. They are too WEIRD: western, educated, industrial, rich and developed.
When Indian men in the rural northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh played the game, only low-caste men behaved like the American students. High caste men certainly did not fall into an efficient partnership.
A case of caste
Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state, and it is notoriously bad at forming cooperatives; villages do not have coordinated planting schedules, drainage or sanitation. The population there is about 20 percent high caste and about 20 percent low caste (Dalit, the caste formerly known as Untouchables). The groups share language and geography, so these can be removed as confounding factors when men from different castes behave differently in this cooperative game. Their main difference is cultural.
The biggest difference in behavior, and the only difference that was statistically significant, occurred when a high-caste man lost because he chose to cooperate – he chose the deer, but his partner chased the hare. After that, he was far less likely to attempt to work together again than the low-caste men or American children. He took revenge.
The economists running the game conducted experiments to see if differences in trust or self-esteem between the castes could explain the results; they did not. In general, people in high castes are richer and better educated, but this is not as true as it once was and is certainly not true across the board. There are now high caste people who live in mud huts with thatched roofs and low caste people who live in more permanent homes. Yet education and wealth were not responsible for the different behaviors either.
The high-caste men did not cooperate in this simple game – and presumably do not cooperate efficiently in more important, real world affairs – because they take the loss they incur as an insult. And they retaliate because in their worldview that is the only way to deal with insults.
This idea was confirmed when participants were given hypothetical scenarios about social harm and asked how they would react. The high caste men said they would respond with violence much more often than the low caste men. All of this is consistent with previous work indicating that high-caste men are far more concerned than lower-caste men with masculine honors, meaning they respond aggressively to perceived transgressions in the belief that that’s what it takes to maintain their authority. .
Cultures differ in what they see as a trifle rather than just a misunderstanding, and they differ on how to deal with a trifle. And that matters a lot. Uncooperativeness results in everyone having less, but taking revenge every time someone is uncooperative leads to social dysfunction.
PNAS2018. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1804639115 (About DOIs).
List image by Getty Images | sarot pruksachat