Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

55. One Thing Leads to Another

Note: This post is the fifty-fifth 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.


In a world where everyone is the same and they all just pursue their own self-interest with no regard for what happens to other people, the question of what happens when people with different preference types interact doesn't arise.

But my last post raised the possibility that people might have different 'temperaments' with respect to how they personally are affected by the fate of the people they deal with. As Alan anticipated in the comments on the last post, if there are different sorts of people potentially out there, then a natural question is to try and see what happens if the different types interact with one another and how a collection of different types of people might change over time.

One of the best known ways that a population makeup can change over time is via evolutionary dynamics. People who are more 'successful' with their actions will have more children than those who are less successful, meaning that, over time, more successful strategies will come to dominate.

A common debate in the social sciences is then whether unselfish behaviour can sustain itself over time, given that selfish people might be able to take advantage of the unselfishness of the altruists. It's true that a group of unselfish people will likely outperform a group of selfish people, but then won't the unselfish group fall victim to selfishness from within? The answers are (as usual) it depends, but I won't get into the details any more in this particular post (with a 2 hour episode of wipeout on tonight, time for posting is limited!).

Evolutionary dynamics are not the only way for a population makeup to change over time. Imitation works too. The Czech Republic (for example) isn't a capitalist country because it was outbred by capitalist countries, it's capitalist (arguably, at least) because the population decided to imitate what they felt was a more successful method of doing things. At a personal level, people will imitate what they other people doing around them if they feel those people are successful (see also Bubble, Housing).

A third option is migration. If people are able to move from one society to another, their movements will alter the distribution of preference types within each society. A constant migration of unselfish types to an unselfish society might offset a trend towards successful acts of selfishness within that society, for example.

A fourth mechanism is that the people themselves do not change, but their relative strength of influence does. Maybe an unselfish society contains only one selfish person, but if that person uses their unchecked greed as a means to taking control of the whole society, then the society could change dramatically despite nobody changing their particular nature.

No doubt there are other mechanisms by which the makeup of preferences in a society can change over time - I can't think of any at the moment, but feel free to point them out in the comments.

This is all pretty abstract, but the point is that it would theoretically be possible to model or simulate various ways in which a society of people with different preference types might evolve over time, applying different mechanisms by which behaviours might spread or change or change in influence over time. There are folks out there who have undertaken this sort of work, and I'll cover some of their efforts in future posts.

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