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Science in Mind

Theoretical support found for ‘authentic altruism’

Everyone has been told that actions speak louder than words. But is it true?

We rely more on the friend who agrees to help dig out our car out without hesitation than the one who only picks up the shovel after asking how deep it is buried in the snow. We trust the politician supporting a particular policy who hasn’t flip-flopped from a past clearly articulated stance.

We care not just what people do, but what they think. Motives matter.

A group of Harvard mathematicians has now advanced a mathematical model to try and explain this quirk of human behavior that is more often left to philosophers and psychologists. Plenty of studies have examined the factors that cause people to cooperate or act selfishly, but the researchers devised a model that could distinguish between people who lend a hand because they expect others to reciprocate and the truly generous people who “cooperate without looking” — without weighing the gains and losses. They call this group CWOLers, for short.

They found that people are CWOLers under certain conditions — as long as the costs to them are usually low and only very occasionally high.


“We think this is the first paper that explains authentic altruism, as opposed to, ‘I help you because it is in my best interest to do so,’ ” said Martin Nowak, a professor of mathematics and biology at Harvard who oversaw the study, published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Nowak and colleagues created a mathematical model of cooperative behavior called the envelope game. In the game, player one is presented with an envelope. If she opens it, she can learn how much it will cost to cooperate with player two and decide whether to go ahead.

But player one can also decide to cooperate without opening the envelope. Player two can see whether his partner opens the envelope and then decide whether to continue with another round of the game.


To figure out which behaviors were likely, researchers did not actually ask anyone to play the game. Instead, they were interested in the mathematical theory underlying such cooperation, so the researchers solved equations to figure out the equilibrium points. Those represent the cooperative choices people will make given such dilemmas. They found that CWOLers who didn’t weigh each act of cooperation before agreeing to help gained more trust than those who looked.

The researchers believe that this can help explain all sorts of behaviors.

For example, in romantic love, people tend to build long-term relationships with partners who aren’t constantly tallying up the cost of being together. The fact they aren’t constantly keeping track of slights and gains makes them more trustworthy partners during the difficult times.

The work is part of a much larger project by the laboratory to use math to understand behaviors that can seem like questions of morality or ethics.

Researchers not directly involved in the study had mixed opinions about how to interpret the results.

Cristina Bicchieri, a professor of philosophy and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, questioned whether the model supported the researchers’ interpretations. In the scenario in which the player “cooperates without looking,” the player gains more of an advantage from cooperating than refusing to help.

“This is not altruism. This is expected utility maximization,’’ Bicchieri said in an e-mail.


But David Rand, an assistant professor of psychology, economics, and management at Yale University who did his scientific training with Nowak at Harvard, said the study was “an extremely cool paper.”

“What they do here is . . . explain how you can get the evolution of a whole way of thinking or approaching things, which is specifically they show how it can be adaptive to not pay attention and just give without thinking about it,” Rand said.

Moshe Hoffman, the evolutionary theorist who led the work, said the Harvard lab takes its findings to heart when they think about helping each other out. A term from the experiment has entered the laboratory vernacular: CWOLers.

“If someone comes in, we do them a favor and they do us a favor immediately . . . we say, ‘He’s not a CWOLer,’ ” Hoffman said. “I think we have to some extent taken it to heart. To be a genuine altruist, a CWOLer if you will, is a way to have deeper and more meaningful relationship.”

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.