Are we all Robin Hoods at heart?

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May 13 2010 10:03 AM

Robin Hood Psychology

We may be predisposed to steal from the rich and give to the poor.

Robin Hood. Click image to expand.

Most summer movie heroes have an uncontroversial moral mandate: Beat the bad guys; save the city; "With great power comes great responsibility." Robin Hood's crusade is more divisive: He steals from the rich and gives to the poor, redistributing wealth in favor of a more equitable society.

On opening weekend of Ridley Scott's film adaptation (starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett), the climate for Robin Hood's moral brand seems bleak—"socialism" has become a dirty word in America. But while Robin Hood's ideals are politically controversial, researchers in psychology and related fields are finding that humans seem inclined to engage in Robin Hood-like thinking, which they often call "egalitarian motives," "inequity aversion," or "variance reduction." In fact, there's a growing body of evidence that, despite appearances, we're Robin Hoods at heart.

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To measure our attitudes toward inequality, researchers conduct "ultimatum games," a form of experimental economics frequently cited by journalists and pop psychologists to debunk the idea that we always act rationally. In an ultimatum game, the first test subject is given money that he must divide between himself and a second subject. The second subject then gets the opportunity to take the deal or to reject it—leaving both subjects with nothing. It turns out that people are inclined to reject the deal when the split is very unequal, even though they'd be better off taking what they can. The conclusion: People are willing to sacrifice their own income to punish those who don't distribute incomes equally.

Other studies have gone one step further, examining our willingness to redistribute wealth actively. In a 2007 study, for example, James Fowler of the University of California-San Diego, and a team of researchers gave 120 college students different, randomly generated amounts of money. After dividing the students into small groups, they gave them the opportunity to do nothing or to alter their fellow group-members' incomes by paying one monetary unit to either increase or decrease another player's wealth by three units. The subjects were then shuffled around into new groups and allowed to alter incomes again. (The process was repeated several times.) Overall, 71 percent of the reductions were targeted toward wealthier people, and 62 percent of the increases were given to poorer people. "Not only are people willing to punish the rich they're willing to reward the poor," Fowler told me in a recent interview. He has replicated the study several times and always finds similar results.  

The Robin Hood impulse isn't just a modern quirk: Anthropologists have found that it dates back to early humans. The expert in this area is Christopher Boehm, whose 1999 book Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behaviorexplains how, as far back as 6 million years ago, rank and file members of society protected egalitarianism by ganging up on alpha males whenever they emerged. In two more recent papers, Boehm—who uses observations of contemporary primitive societies as models for how our ancestors lived—writes that humans became even more egalitarian about 250,000 years ago, when they began hunting in groups. "You cannot have a single alpha male eating up all the meat," Boehm explains, "because they have to hunt as a team, and when the rest of the team isn't nourished, everyone loses out."

Primatologists have even found egalitarian impulses in nonhuman primates. In 2003, Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal published a study entitled "Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay," which found that brown capuchins refuse a lesser reward (a cucumber slice) when another capuchin gets a better one (a grape). This year, a paper Brosnan co-authored with four other researchers in Animal Behaviour found that the rich chimps also noticed the inequality—they were more likely to refuse the better reward (a grape) when their partner got a lesser one (a carrot this time). It's possible, Brosnan argues, that the chimps behaved in this apparently self-abnegating manner for a self-serving reason—they were afraid of getting beaten up when they went back to their social group. But the chimps still reacted to the inequality. According to Brosnan, monitoring inequality may help primates maintain cooperation. If two chimps are working together, and one is getting more out of it than another, they want to erase the gap so that the cheated partner doesn't walk off the project.