When Maia Szalavitz wrote recently in Time magazine about behaviour in NYC, it felt as if she somehow imagined the city quite different from other cities, towns and villages around the globe. Which, of course, it is and it isn't.
"For many residents of New York City, our bodies are our cars. So rather than engaging in "road rage" against slow or erratic drivers on a highway, New Yorkers descend into "sidewalk rage," paroxysms of fury directed at people who exhibit irrational, obstructive walking behavior on Manhattan's crowded concrete. But is this reaction a sign of mental illness — or could it perhaps reflect an evolutionary adaptation that may have enabled the development of cooperation?"
Well Maia, even pedestrians in rural East Devon can be troubled by dawdling monks or teenagers on their mobile phones blocking the gateway to the Jurassic Coast. While we may not be members of the Facebook group called "I Secretly Want to Punch Slow Walking People in the Back of the Head", which boasts over 22,000 members, we are certainly signed up to the "I am still learning to lessen my attachment to feeling distaste when city dwellers lean over my garden wall and patronise the shit out of me" group..
"For the rare folks who act out in dangerous ways, sidewalk or road rage may indeed signal illness. But the idea raises the much more interesting question of why so many otherwise normal people also feel the same intense emotion when navigating around slow hordes — and have to temper their impulses to act on their anger — in the first place.
Which brings me to what researchers call 'altruistic punishment'. While it sounds like an oxymoron, altruistic punishment is basically how social norms get enforced. So when you expel a huffy "Excuse me!" to the rude sidewalk clogger in front of you who has stopped midstride to check his BlackBerry, you're trying to discourage behavior that endangers other members of the society. It's called 'altruistic' punishment, because your efforts to protect civility come at personal cost with little chance of personal benefit: you are far more likely to get an obscene gesture or even a punch in the mouth than a thank you.
Many evolutionary psychologists believe, however, that without altruistic punishment, cooperation could not have evolved. In simulations of "selfish" versus "cooperative" strategies for living, for instance, researchers have found that altruistic or cooperative creatures beat out selfish ones only in an environment in which the failure to cooperate is actively detected and punished. Sidewalk rage — anger over the selfish violation of a cooperative social norm that protects the group — is a nice example of that.
Reinforcing that theory is the result of a recent study that explored whether altruistic punishment is an act of deliberation and self-control, or, as one might expect from the case of sidewalk rage, an emotional impulse. Researchers found a connection between impulsiveness and altruistic punishment, suggesting that the phenomenon is more the result of emotion (like sidewalk rage) than reason.
In the study, researchers measured participants' impulse control by subjecting them to a test similar to the famous Stanford marshmallow test, which allows people to gain more goodies later if they can resist the temptation of a smaller reward now.
The participants were also asked to play an "ultimatum game" in which two people have to split a sum of money. The first person gets to decide how the loot is divided, but if the second person rejects the offer, no one gets anything. In other words, it's a situation in which you can punish someone for being unfair or selfish — but only at a cost to yourself.
Adding a twist to the experiment, some volunteers were given medication that depleted the amount of serotonin in their brains; others were given placebo. Low levels of serotonin have been linked with impulsive and irrational behavior, so reducing it could help determine whether self-control and altruistic punishment are affected by it in the same way.
And indeed, in the low serotonin condition, participants were more likely both to make impulsive choices in the delayed-reward test and to punish those who behaved uncooperatively in the ultimatum game, supporting the idea that altruistic punishment is driven by emotion, specifically, anger.
So take heart, readers. If you find yourself fuming at those who behave in ways that are uncivil in your culture, you may be exhibiting an emotion that was a key part in allowing civilization to exist in the first place. And to those who want to avoid enraging New Yorkers: keep right and let us pass!"
Time magazine - Maia Szalavitz
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