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Fascinating, Counterintuitive Study on Capitalism and Altruism – NYTimes

Moral Lessons, Down Aisle 9

By JOHN TIERNEY

New York Times

March 22, 2010

Like Diogenes with his lamp, researchers have traversed the world looking for an honest man — or, more precisely, for people who act in the same fair, unselfish way toward everyone. If you wish to learn to follow this golden rule, which of these strategies is best?

a) Move to a village in the Amazon and go foraging with the indigenous Tsimane people.

b) Move to a Dolgan and Nganasan settlement on the Siberian tundra, herd reindeer and join the Russian Orthodox Church.

c) Visit a Himalayan monastery and follow instructions to “gaze within” and “follow your bliss.”

d) Join a camp of nomadic Hadza hunter-gatherers sharing giraffe meat and honey on the Serengeti savanna.

e) Join a throng of Wal-Mart shoppers buying groceries on the Missouri prairie.

Well, the Siberian church might impart some moral lessons, but your best bet is to go shopping, at least by my reading of the experiments reported in the current issue of Science. It doesn’t have to be Wal-Mart, by the way — any kind of grocery store seems to have an effect. Wal-Mart just happens to be popular with the exceptionally fair-minded residents of Hamilton, a small rural town in northwestern Missouri. They scored higher in a test of fairness toward strangers than did any of the less-modern communities in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The study doesn’t prove the moral superiority of Missourians, because traditional societies emphasize different virtues, like providing food and comfort to relatives. But the results do help explain a central mystery of civilization: How did small family clans evolve into large cities of cooperative strangers? Why are New Yorkers sometimes nice even to tourists?

Being nice made evolutionary sense when we lived in small bands surrounded by relatives, because helping them helped our genes survive. And we had a direct incentive to be fair to people who would later reciprocate kindness or punish selfishness. But why even consider returning a stranger’s wallet you find in a taxicab? Why leave a tip in a restaurant you’ll never visit again?

Some evolutionary psychologists have suggested that we have an innate sense of fairness left over from our days of living in small clans. According to this theory, our inherited instincts cause us to be nice to strangers even when we’re hurting our interests, just as our ancient taste for fat and sugar causes us now to eat more calories than are good for us.

But there’s more to it than just inherited instinct, says Joseph Henrich of the University of British Columbia, who led the study’s team of anthropologists, psychologists and economists. They found wide cultural variations by observing more than 2,000 people in 15 small communities participate in a two-player game, called Dictator, with a prize equal to the local pay for a day’s work.

One player, the dictator, was given the authority to keep the entire prize or share part of it with the other, unseen player, whose identity remained secret. Along with this power came the assurance that the dictator’s identity would also remain secret, so that no one except the researcher would ever know how selfish the dictator had been.

The most lucrative option, of course, was to keep the whole prize and stiff the anonymous partner. But the Missourians on average shared more than 45 percent of the prize, and some other societies were nearly as generous, like the Ghanians living in the city of Accra and the Sanquianga fishermen on the coast of Colombia.

But most of the hunter-gatherers, foragers and subsistence farmers were less inclined to share. The Hadza nomads in the Serengeti and the Tsimane Indians in the Amazon gave away only a quarter of the prize. They also reacted differently when given a chance, in variations of the game, to punish another player for hogging the prize.

Selfishness offended the Missourians so much that they would punish the player even though it cost them money. But the members of traditional societies showed little inclination to punish others at their own expense. “There are lots of norms in these small-scale societies for how to treat one another and share food,” says Dr. Henrich. “But these rules don’t apply in unusual situations when you don’t know anything about the kinship or status of the other person. You don’t feel the same sense of responsibility, and you act more out of self-interest.”

The researchers found that people in small communities like the Hadza camp (population about 50) were less willing to inflict punishment than people in larger communities like Hamilton (about 1,800). That makes practical sense: the more strangers there are, the more need to keep them from exploiting one another. But what enabled those larger societies to grow in the first place?

Dr. Henrich and his colleagues identified two distinguishing factors.

People belonging to a modern “world religion,” like the Islamic faith of the Orma cattle herders in Kenya or the Christian faith of the Dolgan reindeer herders in Siberia, tended to share more of their prize than did adherents of local religions. As larger communities became possible after the invention of agriculture, the researchers write in Science, “intersocietal competition may have favored those religious systems that galvanize pro-social behavior in broader communities, perhaps using both supernatural incentives (for example, hell) and recurrent rituals that intensify group solidarity.”

But a second factor seemed even more important. In explaining attitudes toward fairness, Dr. Henrich and his colleagues found that the strongest predictor was the community’s level of “market integration,” which was measured by the percentage of the diet that was purchased. The people who got all or most of their food by hunting, fishing, foraging or growing it themselves were less inclined to share a prize equally.

Grocery shopping may seem an unlikely form of moral education, but the researchers argue in Science that the development of “market norms” promotes general levels of “trust, fairness and cooperation” with strangers. (You can debate that point at nytimes.com/tierneylab.)

“Markets don’t work very efficiently if everyone acts selfishly and believes everyone else will do the same,” Dr. Henrich says. “You end up with high transaction costs because you have to have all these protections to cover every loophole. But if you develop norms to be fair and trusting with people beyond your social sphere, that provides enormous economic advantages and allows a society to grow.”

One such dynamic society was ancient Greece, whose ethical norms spread as it grew, widely, and perhaps it was no coincidence that those ethics were developed by philosophers debating alongside merchants at the central marketplace called the agora. In retrospect, maybe Diogenes and his lamp didn’t really have all that far to go.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/23/science/23tier.html

#Haiti update on current HODR Projects

Working with Hands On Disaster Response at such an early stage was a distinct honor, and we got to not only clear the foundations for new home sites, but also lay the foundations for many HODR programs that are now blossoming. They are scheduled to be onsite in Leogane through at least the summer, and possibly beyond, so apply for a slot at www.HODR.org

Enjoy this video update from Marc Young, HODR Operations Director

HAITI: Project Leogane 30 Day Report (from HODR)

I am very honored to have been part of the early stages of the operation in Haiti, and it is inspiring to see how expansive the operation has become in a matter of a few weeks.

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It’s been 30 days of Project Leogane, and we’re off to a running start! Check out this brief video recapping our first month of programs, as well as our Haiti photo collection on flickr.

Here’s a quick look at what we’ve been working on and how we’ve ramped up.

Rubble

In one month, we’ve cleared over 30 slabs! Land is extremely limited in the urban/semi-urban areas most affected by the earthquake, so each home that we clear is a chance at a fresh beginning, a jumpstart to the rebuilding process. Our volunteers have thrown themselves into the work, sledge hammering concrete roofs and columns, hack sawing twisted rebar, and pushing loaded wheelbarrows. Also emerging from the rubble are the stories of each family who lived there; they’ve worked alongside us to clean up, salvage what they can, and begin rebuilding.

Special thanks to the kids of Leogane who work cheerfully and energetically with our teams each day! Their attention to safety is rewarded with a wheelbarrow ride through the neighborhood. The Canadian army has also been a tremendous asset to the city of Leogane with their heavy equipment and can-do attitude. Once HODR teams fill the streets with rubble, they arrive to truck the debris away.

read more here -> Hands On Disaster Response.

#HODR It’s better to support volunteers than gala’s. NYC #Haiti Benefit to raise Less Cash Than Attention http://ping.fm/R4Ruv

Virtual Staging Sparks Sales of Vacant Homes « The Lipman Group Sotheby\’s International Realty

Three years ago, I co-founded Visentio with two partners.  A bit ahead of its time, but glad to see the market validation.  We still have all the IP if anyone is looking for a ‘just add water’ company to launch 😉

Realtors already use the Web to showcase their listings online, where buyers peruse them before hitting the home tours. Now comes virtual staging.
Here’s how it works: A real estate agent e-mails photos of a vacant home to a stager, who digitally adds tables, chairs, lamps, art work and other items to make the space look more inviting. The agent uses the enhanced photos for his Web site, the Multiple Listing Service, flyers and other advertising.

Virtual staging is gaining ground in today’s distressed economy and real estate market. Many for-sale homes are vacant because they’re in foreclosure or because the owners have had to move before being able to sell them.

Meanwhile, falling prices mean less or no profit for sellers, who might not be inclined to spend money on traditional staging. Realtors earn less, too, because their income is derived from the sales price.

read more:  Virtual Staging Sparks Sales of Vacant Homes « The Lipman Group Sotheby\’s International Realty.

Buy “The Underground Guide to International Volunteering” and Support HODR in the process

The 63-page ebook is aimed at introducing travellers to the wonders of volunteering abroad and to help them break away from the usual backpacker trail, get involved with local communities around the world and make a difference in people’s lives in a variety of ways.

The ebook includes:

  • Help deciding whether international volunteering is a good fit for you.
  • Advice on how to choose a volunteering experience that is right for you.
  • Information on different types of volunteering from conservation to development to disaster relief.
  • Practical information on visas, travel insurance, packing, health and hygiene, living conditions and communication.
  • Nine interviews with international volunteers sharing their experiences, giving advice and offering inspiration.
  • Tips for how to find free and cheap volunteering placements including website reviews that will help with your search.
  • A list of volunteering opportunities worldwide that are free or low-cost with organizations I trust.
  • Fee-based volunteering: Why I would never do it but why it is right for some people.
  • A list of fee-based volunteering companies along with information on whether they donate part of their fee to the actual project.
  • Free updates forever as I discover new free and cheap volunteering opportunities and make other updates.

Nerdy Nomad » The Underground Guide to International Volunteering.

DailyGood: How Innovation Happens

BYU study looks at how innovation happens

Leaders » Successful people ask questions, challenge status quo
Ever wonder how Michael Dell came up with the idea to create his own computer company? Or how Pierre Omidyar dreamed up the online marketplace eBay? Or how Jeff Bezos came up with the bold moves needed to develop Amazon.com into one of America’s most successful companies?
After more than six years of research, Brigham Young University professor Jeff Dyer is convinced that these visionary business leaders and others didn’t start out completely hard-wired for creativity and innovation.
“I always thought creativity was genetic — that some people have it, some people don’t, and there’s not much you can do to get better at it,” Dyer said.
But Dyer thinks differently now. The key qualities that separate great leaders from not-so-great ones can be developed, he and his colleagues contend in “The Innovator’s DNA.”

see full article

Haiti Recap

Well, I am back in NYC.  Fundamentally and profoundly impacted.

Yesterday was the final day in Haiti and I am so overwhelmed trying to process all that has happened that I feel almost incapable of expression.

On our last night (Saturday), we had a ‘going away’ party and there were many fascinating conversations. Two of our fellow volunteers who are of Haitian descent asked us if we had ever been to Haiti, and if we would have ever come here without the disaster. For most of us (myself included), the answer was no to both, and they expressed how inspired they were that we would choose to volunteer in a place where we had no connection.  I have been thinking about that for the entire trip and the best explanation I can come up with is that my view of the world is like an ant colony – an incredibly complex organism consisting of countless component parts that each have a critical role to play.  The colony can only survive and thrive when all the parts are healthy and functioning well. I believe that it is in my Self interest to contribute in any way I can and in this case, that meant hauling rubble and clearing home sites for new houses to replace the ones lost.

In all likelihood, I will never know the difference it made for those families, and it is hard to think about the 6 sites I worked on relative to the roughly 500,000 structures knocked down.  But I always go back to something that my dear friend Brett once asked – “would you rather be someone who says I could have, or someone who says I did?”  I feel privileged for the experience of being there, and thankful that an organization like HODR will have more than 1,000 other volunteers working  there for the next 6 months, and that dozens, if not hundreds of other NGO’s and non-profits will continue working to build up that country.

One of the biggest challenges we all face is helping out in a time of need without creating a system/culture of dependency where a large part of the country has an expectation of being supported.  That is an immensely complex problem which I could not hope to tackle.  However, I was very impressed that nearly all the organizations (HODR prominently among them) have strict policies in place to minimize that.  For example, all the sites we cleared had family members participating – sometimes more enthusiastically than others, and more often the younger kids than the adults.  But considering that for most of these families, those 37 seconds killed loved ones, wiped out all their possessions, and erased several generations of personal history.  So while I may view each home site as a tangled puzzle of rubble, rebar, and debris, these family members are watching us tear apart and cart away the last evidence of what was effectively their whole world.  For the volunteers, we sing songs and make jokes to ease the back-breaking labor, and it is probably a good thing the language barrier prevents them from understanding our humor.

I will be adding more posts here (some of them back-dated because I did not get them uploaded in Haiti), including pictures and video once I get those uploaded.

Thanks for all your interests and your comments.  I will try to address the various questions over the next several days.

Haiti Photo Album

A selection of pictures capturing the community, the rubble, the work sites, HODR base camp, volunteers, and of course, the kids.  http://bit.ly/b2cHb8

Video: Volunteers at HODR Base in Haiti, enjoying lunch, spouting philosophy

To keep the volunteers fueled up, a full time cook prepares hot lunches and dinners 6 days a week.  This is a great opportunity to decompress and reflect on the project at hand.  Neil is a ‘repeat offender’ with HODR, having done time in a number of exotic locations around the world.  He eloquently conveys his Carpe Diem philosophy in this video.

YouTube: Volunteers at HODR Base in Haiti, enjoying lunch, spouting philosophy.


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