Men Can be Evil: Economists are often confused

Men fill the world’s prisons, commit most murders, and have started all major wars. In another example of scientists rediscovering ancient truths, a new study of mine documents the costs men impose on (an experimental) society. In the study, status-seeking men are willing to impose enormous costs on others to move up in the hierarchy. 

Published in the journal Socius, the study is entitled, “Gender, Punishment, and Cooperation: Men Hurt Others to Advance Their Interests.”  (Official Chapman press release, full paper).

How can selfish, dangerous men be headline news in 2018? Perhaps only to ivory-towered economists. One of the hottest, most controversial, ideas in economics is labelled ‘altruistic punishment’. 

The proponents of altruistic punishment (also called ‘strong reciprocity’) argue that people have evolved, by natural selection, to sacrifice themselves for the good of the group. Altruistic punishment, for example, explains road rage as an effort to simply teach the other party to drive more responsibly. The ‘altruistic’ warrior is fighting not for his (and ‘his’ is usually correct) satisfaction, but to make our highways safer.

The idea of ‘altruistic punishment’ has real world consequences. If people are inherently motivated to sacrifice for the group, there would be no need for many modern institutions. The academic opponents of this fairy-tale of altruistic people, align their views with those of James Madison in the Federalist Papers, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” and furthermore, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition”. 

This new study supports Madison in arguing that cooperation requires careful nurturing. In provides a cautionary tale that the wrong incentives can lead to antisocial behavior. In the study, men and women have a chance to cooperate and/or inflict extremely costly punishment on others. 

Men are willing to destroy their group in order to move up in the hierarchy. Furthermore, men, but not women, are willing to punish people who have done nothing wrong, but rather cooperate to the maximum allowed. 

Men can be evil, and economists are often confused. 

Burnham, Terence C. (2018). "Gender, Punishment, and Cooperation: Men Hurt Others to Advance Their Interests." Socius 4: 1-8.


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