Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Studying Generosity

Imagine you're dining at a restaurant in a city you're visiting for the first - and, most likely the last - time. Chances are slim to none that you'll ever see your server again, so if you wanted to shave a few dollars off your tab by not leaving a tip, you could do so. And yet, if you're like most people, you will leave the tip anyway, and not give it another thought.

These commonplace acts of generosity - where no future return is likely - have long posed a scientific puzzle to evolutionary biologists and economists. In acting generously, the donor incurs a cost to benefit someone else. But choosing to incur a cost with no prospect of a compensating benefit is seen as maladaptive by biologists and irrational by economists. If traditional theories in these fields are true, such behaviors should have been weeded out long ago by evolution or by self-interest. According to these theories, human nature is fundamentally self-serving, with any "excess" generosity the result of social pressure or cultural conformity.

Recently, however, a team of scientists at UC Santa Barbara conducted a series of computer simulations designed to test whether it was really true that evolution would select against generosity in situations where there is no future payoff. Their work surprisingly shows that generosity - acting to help others in the absence of foreseeable gains - emerges naturally from the evolution of cooperation. This means that human generosity is likely to rest on more than social pressure, and is instead built in to human nature. Their findings appear in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"When past researchers carefully measured people's choices, they found that people all over the world were more generous than the reigning theories of economics and biology predicted they should be," said Max M. Krasnow, a postdoctoral scholar at UCSB's Center for Evolutionary Psychology, and one of the paper's lead authors. "Even when people believe the interaction to be one-time only, they are often generous to the person they are interacting with."

Please click here to read the article in detail, Studying Generosity

Monday, July 11, 2011

You can run but you can not hide

In the middle of India’s anti-corruption agitation fueled by ‘civil society’, one is reminded of the theory of information-blitzing and opinion-building that underwrites the practice. Much of politics, apart from media, marketing, advertising and public relations, runs on these very tracks. We have to invoke Herbert Marshall McLuhan, the famous Canadian professor, who made a considerable impact when he published The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects in 1967. This book was about the effect of different media on the human sensorium. Media, such as TV with its visual content in addition to audio, radio, music on vinyl, even “noise”, were not only “hot” and “cool” on the senses, said Prof McLuhan, but were “extensions” of human personalities, their emotions and thoughts.

Prof McLuhan not only anticipated the ability of the various mediums of communication to witness, record, influence, but actually chronicle the inevitability of change. Through the 1970s, hip media types toted Prof McLuhan’s books around because it was loaded with futuristic phrases such as “global village” and “surfing”, meaning the very same as what we do today with keyboard and mouse, and not what beach boys do at Malibu or Bondi Beach. Prof McLuhan, who died in 1980, also visualised the “world-wide-web”, still called “www” in his very own phrasing, even though the Internet was not even fashionable till the 1990s.

Prof McLuhan anticipated the freedom of information and action the Web would bestow on the ordinary member of the public. Still, he didn’t foresee the ubiquitous cellphone in every pocket, and the apexing and convergence of various abilities on this platform of great portability. In the relatively simple 1960s and 1970s, technologically if not culturally speaking, people were exploring sexual freedom with the advent of the contraceptive pill — minus the scourge of HIV and AIDS. They were also much troubled by the Vietnam War in a time when Left-liberalism, even socialism, in certain quarters was thought to be fashionable.

Any place can be infiltrated, anything can be streamed and/or recorded with spy cameras, on cellphones, or be conveyed, via MMS/SMS message or e-mail, almost simultaneously, with reasonable anonymity. It gives a new meaning to the notion of ‘live’ reporting because this kind does not need the services of a professional journalist, except perhaps to contextualise and distribute the information. No Cabinet meeting, notwithstanding the Ministers’ vow of secrecy, is safe anymore. Besides, 24x7 news channels have ample time and space to give blanket coverage to opposing points of view, and newspapers specialise in merciless analyses.

To read the article in detail: please click here.