At Overcoming Bias, Robin Hanson points out that the human instinct for cooperation has good and bad consequences. A handful of recent articles in reaction to Frans de Waal’s new book, The Age of Empathy, and other writing on cooperation have treated it as a good thing, as a helpful counterweight to human instincts to act selfishly. Hanson extends that perspective to point out that instinctive cooperation has a dark side, too.
His primary example refers to price gouging:
[I]n big disasters like hurricanes, certain goods like gas, wood, water, or food become especially valuable. While natural selfish reactions lead to higher prices for these key items, humans clearly evolved to see this behavior as uncooperative; we resist such price rises, and want to punish those who allow them.
Perhaps this made sense for our distant ancestors, but today it is counter-productive. If these goods are not allocated by price, they will instead be allocated by standing in lines, personal connections, etc., processes that are consistently worse at giving goods to those who value them the most, and do worse at creating incentives to prepare for such scenarios.
He continues with some speculation on why economists and others who point out the benefits of post-disaster price increases are met with scorn:
But even when some of us realize that disaster price rises are actually cooperative behavior, pro-“cooperation” instincts get in the way of acting on this insight. If others mistakenly intuit that we are suggesting acts they consider uncooperative, they will punish us for such suggestions. They will similarly punish us if their usual conformity rumor mill, not exactly designed for subtle analysis, tells them our suggestions are uncooperative….
The problem is that evolved cooperation instincts reward supporting behavior that most people feel is cooperative, and not what is actually cooperative. In novel situations, where our ancient instincts and simple rumor mills are poor guides, ordinary folks can be quite mistaken about which actions help vs. hurt everyone.
This last part bears emphasis so I’ll repeat: “evolved cooperation instincts reward supporting behavior that most people feel is cooperative, and not what is actually cooperative. In novel situations, where our ancient instincts and simple rumor mills are poor guides, ordinary folks can be quite mistaken about which actions help vs. hurt everyone.”
NOTE: Previous discussions of price gouging on Knowledge Problem.