Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Stories and Social Order

In discussing the importance of cooperation, reciprocity, and punishing cheaters, Eric Beinhocker in The Origins of Wealth points out that

Our reciprocity software, however, is not hardwired---it can adapt to local circumstances. When we are in an environment in which most of our experience is of other people's cooperation and reciprocation and in which social norms give us signals that people can be trusted (e.g., people tell admiring stories about self-sacrificing, trustworthy types), then our mental cooperation software will tend to be biased toward cooperating. It also will be more surprised and more forgiving when it encounters an example of defection or cheating. In essence, our minds statistically sample the population around us, and if people are usually cooperative, then when we encounter a cheater, we will tend ot assume that the person's behavior is probably the result of an error or misunderstanding. In contrast, in a low-cooperation, high-cheating environment with social norms that don't support cooperation (e.g., the stories are all about thieves, and people tell you to "watch your back"), our cognitive cooperation software biases us toward being suspicious. We react harshly to the first signs of cheating, forgive only slowly if at all, and are likely to resist cooperating until given a isgn of cooperation from the other party first.

The local tuning of reciprocity norms can create very complex dynamics at the level of populations. High-cooperation societies can see collapses in cooperation if cheating reaches a critical mass; low-cooperation societies can get stuck in uncooperative, eocnomically impoverished dead-ends; and when people from different cooperative traditions mix, it can lead ot misunderstanding and turmoil. (269-270).
This is the argument Martin and Storr make regarding the role of stories in perverse spontaneous orders, and is similar to Sanford Ikeda's arugments on trust. Our stories create our cultures, and if our stories tell us we are trustworthy and cooperative, we will become trustworthy and cooperative. To whatever extent our stories are a reflection of our culture, they can act to reinforce our attitudes. If we are a high-trust, high-cooperation culture, this is beneficial. If we are not, reflectionist literature can be downright harmful. The same arguments, in reverse, can be made regarding literature critical of its society. Such interrelations should be investigated more thoroughly. Stories can make a huge difference in our social lives.

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