I gave a talk yesterday at a Fraser Institute event in Toronto. The luncheon speaker, neuro-economist Paul Zak, did a great job talking about oxytocin and its role in our systems. He started out beautifully, contrasting Thomas Hobbes’s view of life in Leviathan with Adam Smith’s view in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He asked “Who here got in a fight today?” His point, of course, was that we live in a very peaceful society in which life is not, a la Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short.”

(In writing this post, I checked the bio of Thomas Hobbes. Interestingly, although his own life might have been nasty and brutish, it was not short. I would love to live that long.)

Zak had some great evidence, which you can find out more about by checking the link to his TED talk.

He did give some evidence, though, that does not support his view of altruism even though he thinks it does. Fortunately, I don’t think his case rested only on this particular evidence, but it’s important to point out what’s wrong with this evidence from experimental economics.

Zak told of experiments in which one stranger, being given an endowment of $10, could, by giving another stranger money, cause that stranger to get 3 times that amount. So, for example, if Stranger A, given a choice to give money to Stranger B, gives $2, Stranger A winds up with $8 but Stranger B winds up with the $2 plus an additional $4 provided by the experimenters. Over 90% of people in stranger A’s position, he said, give something. He regarded this as evidence of altruism.

But is it really? Steven Landsburg, many years ago, explained why it’s not.

So I’ll give Steven’s explanation in my words, and add one more possibility. As Steven pointed out, that extra $4 came from the experimenters. So Stranger A is giving up $2 to cause B to get his $2 plus $4 from someone. If he hadn’t given up the $2, then that someone would have kept the $4. So wouldn’t a person with altruistic motives have a little regard for that someone paying the $4. I can see why giving $2 to Stranger B, with no additional implications, is altruistic. Although even there, it’s a funny kind of altruism: you don’t know whom you’re helping. Stranger B could be someone poor or someone rich, someone deserving or someone undeserving.

But I don’t see why costing the experimenter $4 to give that $4 to stranger B is altruistic.

Interestingly, Paul Zak, in laying out this experiment, and adding another component–once Stranger B gets the money, he can give some, and many do give some, to Stranger A–actually said that A and B could get together and take advantage of the experimenter. “Let’s take his money.” That’s strong evidence against the idea that Paul Zak himself believes that Stranger A is altruistic.

Of course, you might argue that Stranger A understands the context and understands that the experiment will run until the money in the research grant is exhausted. So Stranger A is really not costing the experimenter anything. (In fact, it may save the experimenter time because the money will be exhausted more quickly.) But then Stranger A is causing future people who would have been experimental subjects not to get that money. So even here, it’s hard to see altruism.

There is one more possibility. Stranger A imagines that the experimenter is the Easter Bunny or something similar. Or, to put it in economic terms, Stranger A imagines that there is no scarcity. But that’s certainly not cause for celebration.