Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

54. Types of Interpersonal Preferences

Note: This post is the fifty-fourth in a series. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs.


Many models of human behaviour start with a notion that people care only for themselves and have no interest in what happens to other people. i.e. That people have independent preferences. This notion is generally a part of the economic model of humanity known as Homo Economicus.

As David Hume noted back in 1777, the primary reason for making this assumption is that it is the simplest approach.

We can call this personality type, Mr. Selfish. Note that Mr. Selfish would kill you for a $5 bill in your pocket if he felt that there was no risk of getting caught.

Compared to Mr. Selfish, every other behaviour type places more weight on the interests of others and less on their own interests. The alternatives vary based on why and how they take into account the interests of others.

The opposite to Mr. Selfish would be Mr. Selfless, who places 0 weight on his own interests, with 100% weight on the interests of others.

Another possibility would be Mr. Equal who treats all people's interests equally.

Then there is Mr. Fair. Mr. Fair weights people equally if they are equally deserving, but will weight them differently where circumstances dictate it.

Mr. Reciprocate is a special case of Mr. Fair that places a positive weighting on those who cooperate and a negative weighting on those who don't.

Mr. Referee is a special, impartial case of Mr. Reciprocate who will go out of his way to punish people who deserve it (because they aren't playing by the rules) regardless of whether the breach of the rules affected Mr. Referee personally or not.

Another possibility we can call Mr. Hume, since it was Hume who posited the possibility that our sense of empathy works a bit like our sense of perspective, in that we place more weight on the interests of those we know best (i.e. the objects that are closer appear larger in our calculations) while we place little weight on the interests of those we don’t know as well.

Then there is Mr. Spite. Mr. Spite places a reverse weighting on the preferences of those he dislikes, or considers enemies, taking pleasure in their misfortune, and being pained by their success.

Mr. Team Player places an equal weighting on all members of his team, including himself (or alternatively, places a 100% weighting on the team's interests), but places 0 weighting on people who are not part of the team (or on any non-team interests).

Mr. Obedient places 100% weight on whatever he is told to do by someone in authority, only reverting to his own pattern of behaviour in the case where there is no authority figure to follow.

Mr. Leader places 100% weight on the interests of those he leads, with 0% weighting on his own interests.

Mr. Fiduciary places 100% weight on the particular person he is acting on behalf of, in the particular context that he has a fiduciary duty, and places 0% on his own interests in this context.

Mr. Patriot places 100% weighting on the interests of his country and either a 0% weighting on the interests of other countries, or perhaps a positive weighting on the interests of allies and a negative weighting on the interests of enemies.

Mr. Imitate simply does what the people around him do. If they weight people’s preferences equally, he will do the same, if they weight their own preferences 100%, he will do the same, and so on.

Finally, Mr. Pareto places 100% weighting on his own interests and 0% weighting on other people’s interests, just like Mr. Selfish, but places an additional restraint on his actions to avoid any action that would have a negative impact on other people's interests. Note that this approach requires a benchmark to differentiate between a positive impact and a negative impact, where the logical benchmark would be the state of the other person if they never encountered Mr. Trade at all.

Considering the bewildering array of potential behaviour types, it is understandable that people attempting to construct models of human behaviour have sometimes taken the easy way out and assumed the simple case of Mr. Selfish applies to everyone, much like Hobbes did in Leviathan.

However, as I mentioned back here, both common sense and empirical research tell us that different people operate using different approaches and that even the same people use different approaches in different contexts. Just looking at your own behaviour and motivations, I imagine that, like me, you can recall situations where you were driven by concern for others interests, situations where you were trying to help your team, situations where you felt you should retaliate against someone who did you wrong, situations where you felt you should punish someone for breaking the rules, even if they didn't harm you personally, situations where you placed more weight on the interests of those you know better, situations where you were annoyed by someone else's success or pleased by their failure, situations where you simply went with the flow and behaved like everyone else, situations where you refrained from using fraud or force even though it would have been to your benefit to do so, and so on.

Briefly cross-referencing this (no doubt incomplete) list of behaviour types with the two syndromes from systems of survival, my initial guess would be that the commercial syndrome is based primarily, if not solely, on Mr. Pareto type behaviour while the guardian syndrome is a more complicated mix of Mr. Team Player / Mr. Patriot (be loyal, be exclusive), Mr. Obedient (be obedient, respect hierarchy), Mr. Leader (dispense largesse, respect hierarchy) and Mr. Spite / Mr. Referee / Mr. Reciprocator / Mr. Fair (deceive for the sake of the task, exert prowess, take vengeance).

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  • Hello Declan

    Do you know if anyone has run computer simulations of the interactions of the different types in different proportions, sequences & c. Or whether there are Internet or computer interactive games where people can chooose different types (or strategies to follow)to use. If there have been such, how variable have the results been?
    Best Wishes,

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:17 PM  

  • I imagine people have run simulations, although the only ones I've seen have been (relatively) simple ones which just had 2 types of people, cooperators and defectors. For example, see 'The Stag Hunt' by Skyrms where he talks about a number of different simulations he's run.

    His results varied widely depending on whether people were paired with each other randomly, whether some sort of 'survival rate' was used for evolutionary dynamics or whether people could imitate those around them, and on whether people's behavior changed when they learned about what type of person the other people were, and so on.

    By Blogger Declan, at 10:28 PM  

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