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Posted 03.15.06

Oral Traditions Point to Complexities in the Development of Altruistic Behavior

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- We often regard stories as mere entertainment, but a University of Missouri-Columbia researcher believes stories encourage specific social behavior and influence cultural tradition. For example, the Lugbara people, an ethnic group in sub-Saharan Africa, say their rules of social behavior are "the words of our ancestors."

Craig Palmer.Craig Palmer, MU assistant professor of anthropology, studies how traditional stories are passed from generation to generation to influence certain kinds of social behavior. In his most recent research, Palmer studied the moral values embedded in stories about reciprocal altruism, a social behavior in which one person helps another and, later, expects the favor to be returned.

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Anthropological Forum

"If you were a parent, would you want to tell your child a story that encourages altruistic behavior toward everyone, including those individuals who have taken advantage of him or her in the past?" Palmer said. "Or, would you prefer to tell your child a story that encourages him or her only to be altruistic toward individuals who have reciprocated altruism in the past?"

Many theoretical models of reciprocal altruism suggest the evolutionary success of the tit-for-tat pattern of behavior, where individuals are only altruistic toward people who have been altruistic toward them in the past. However, Palmer said it's not that simple.

"When you look at stories from different cultures and time periods, three types of behavior are encouraged," Palmer said. "Some stories encourage tit-for-tat behavior, which limits acts of altruism to people who are likely to reciprocate them. Others encourage altruism even toward non-altruists, while a third category of stories encourage the subtle withholding of altruism from non-altruists."

Given the variety of moral messages expressed in existing traditional stories, Palmer and his colleagues drafted multiple versions of an experimental story, each with a slightly modified message about reciprocal altruism, and incorporated them into two experimental studies.

In the stories, the protagonist, Morty Mouse, exhibits different strategies of reciprocal altruism toward the other characters: a display of indiscriminate altruism, where the Morty demonstrates altruistic behavior despite being cheated by Thomas Toad in the past; a tit-for-tat strategy, in which altruism is withheld based on negative past experiences of reciprocal altruism with Thomas; or a subtly calculating scheme, where Morty demonstrates altruistic behavior despite being cheated in the past but not to the same degree as to those who did reciprocate in the past.

In the first experiment, college students were asked to identify the version of the story they would tell their children. Study participants indicated preference for Morty as an indiscriminate protagonist who helps Thomas regardless of past experience. In the version least likely to be read, Morty acts with a calculating tit-for-tat strategy and refuses to help Thomas because Thomas wouldn't help him.

In a second, more recent study, the same versions of the story were presented to parents over the Internet. The results were consistent with the first study. Palmer said this suggests one function of modern children's stories involving reciprocal altruism is to "soften an evolved tendency to use a tit-for-tat strategy in social behavior."

The findings from the first study will appear this year in the Journal of Anthropological Research. Additional research on traditional stories and their evolutionary significance also will be published this year in the journal Anthropological Forum.



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