Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Friday, August 01, 2008

NYT misses work on Vengeance

Posted by Simon Halliday | Friday, August 01, 2008 | Category: , | article in the New York Times entitled, 'Calculating Economics of an Eye for an Eye', discusses the work of Naci H. Mocan, arguing that his work on vengeance "opens up a new area for exploration." Um... No. Vengeance has become the centre of a research program in experimental economics to understand the dynamics of of cultural salienc of actions and antisocial punishment.

In terms of culture, this has had more substantial investigation since the work by Henrich et al reported on experiments in small-scale societies in 2005, highlighting cultural differences in playing economic experiments.

Antisocial punishment is the phenomenon in experimental games (say public goods games) when individuals punish others who they see infringing on some social norm, but which ends up with the entire group benefiting less. Moreover, the dynamics of revenge in experiments, with respect to individuals who are punished specifically for contributing what is perceived as "too much" to the pot in a public goods game, often assign 'punishment points' to the people who punished them for contributing "too much".

Work of this sort has been going on at the experimental labs of the University of Zurich, under the guidance of Ernst Fehr, as well as at the University of Nottingham, under Simon Gaechter. Hence when they quote Daniel Houser of GMU as saying, "I'm not aware of any work in economics that tries to capture individual differences in vengeful feelings" I say, "What the...?"

Nevertheless, kudos to Mocan for doing this research, but take a look at the work that has been done on these topics outside of the US. Herrmann, Thoni and Gaechter's (2008) Science piece published earlier this year, has similar results to those found by Mocan: weak rule of law, poor institutions, etc are more likely to sustain antisocial punishment and vengeful actions than others. I have referred to the Herrmann et al paper a number of times and highlighted the contribution it has made. If I can, surely people in the US can too?

Herrmann, B., Thoni, C., Gachter, S. (2008). Antisocial Punishment Across Societies. Science, 319(5868), 1362-1367. DOI: 10.1126/science.1153808

Henrich, J., et al. (2005) ‘Economic man’ in cross-cultural perspective: Ethnography and experiments from 15 small-scale societies. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28, 795-855.

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