[Thought occurring to me in class today.]
We humans have two conflicting intuitions and impulses. One is to reciprocate. One good turn deserves another. The other is to punish those we feel have wronged us. To do that, instead of merely an eye for eye, we take one eye and add an ear. You punch me and I punch you back harder to teach you a lesson.
We go from, “Hey, no fair! Why did you hit me? I didn’t do anything.” To, “I will now hit you harder than reciprocity would demand and require, to punish you.” As soon as we ourselves are the recipient of such an over-the-top response, we take umbrage and vow our revenge. We flip from fairness, to punishment, back to fairness, and so on. Each time we take one of the perspectival stances we are sure we are in the right. But, when the shoe is on the other foot, we are convinced the other person is being entirely unreasonable. One minute we are the dear friend and ally of fairness and reciprocity, and the next we are abrogating our principles to get retribution. In the process, we up the ante. Perhaps we could call it “Revenge +.”
The Ultimatum Game demonstrates both tendencies but without the upping the ante aspect. One person is given $100 but can only keep it if another person accepts his offer of a portion of the money. If the other person does not think the offer is “fair,” even though any amount of money would be technically be better than nothing, he will punish the other person by refusing the offer. Of course, he punishes himself in the process by getting nothing either. Unsympathetically, this could be described as cutting off your nose to spite your face. More sympathetically, it could be described as a human need to police antisocial displays of greed in the interests of communal harmony. “Excuse me, buddy. We don’t behave like that around here.”