“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

destruction is the ultimate luxury

I'm dredging this up from a post I wrote in 2002, because I think it is relevant to the psychology of the Occupy Wall Street movement. And to the psychology of the academic and policy elite who criticize the movement.

In 2002, two British professors, Andrew Oswald and Daniel Zizzo, reported on an experiment in which various subjects were gathered together and given cash, distributed – by arbitrary gift and betting – in such a way that some got more and some got less. Then, subjects were allowed to anonymously burn other people’s money – only, however, if they were willing to reduce their own.

62% of those tested chose to destroy part of other test subjects' cash, and half of all the cash was destroyed by other subjects.

A story about this experiment on the site Mindpixel contains this summing up of the burners:

"The researchers found that those who gained the most additional money at the betting stage burned poor and rich alike, while disadvantaged laboratory subjects mainly targeted those subjects they saw getting what they perceived as undeserved financial windfalls."

The libertarian magazine Reason reported on Oswald and Zizzo's experiment, too, under the headline, Burn the Rich. This is, in fact, not so far from the way Oswald and Zizzo presented their results themselves. Curiously, what the experiment clearly shows is that the rich also burned the poor and the rich. The difference is that the poor showed solidarity – they burned only those with higher amounts of cash – while the rich did not.
That the rich burned the poor and the rich seems not to have impressed itself on Reason, even though, as they correctly reported:
"Zizzo and Oswald found that nearly two-thirds of players happily paid for the privilege of impoverishing their fellow participants. Even as the price of burning went up, the percentage of people who chose to burn other players did not fall substantially."

Z. and O. had labels for two classes of burnings, depending on the rank of the burner. One they call rank egalitarianism. Most of the burners who were poorer sacrificed to burn the rich. The other they call reciprocity. Their thesis is that the rich burners were simply responding to being burned.

"In the case of our money burning experiment, advantaged and disadvantaged subjects may,
because of the existence of the advantage, perceive the game differently. This different game
perception implies that subjects prime differently two social categories, one based on deservingness and one on reciprocity. For disadvantaged subjects, what matters is the fact that advantaged subjects got the advantage undeservedly, and they did not. Advantaged subjects may think not only in terms of deservingness, but also in a different light, namely, in the light of the fact that disadvantaged subjects will burn them. They may then want to reciprocate the favour.'"

But how does this explain their earlier result, that the rich burn the rich? Moreover, hidden in the paper is an interesting paragraph about the behavior of the "undeserving" rich -- those who accrued money arbitrarily (in the experiment, money could be made by betting, but money was also randomly allocated at intervals, thus randomly favoring certain individuals).

"In the twin experiment run in Oxford, Zizzo (1999) crossed advantage and deservingness in a factorial design, and found that deservingness mattered. More specifically, he found significantly more negative interdependent preferences in sessions where the advantage was induced unfairly than when it was induced according to a relatively fair procedure. Moreover, in one condition of that experiment, stealing was possible. Zizzo then found that there was substantially more stealing by advantaged subjects if they had got the advantage undeservedly. One possible interpretation of this interaction effect was that undeservedly advantaged subjects expected themselves to be stolen or burnt significantly more, and behaved using a reciprocity logic, in defending their own gains significantly more."

It is interesting how neoclassical models and ‘rational’ choice has bent the minds of academics, which is the only reason I can think of for calling the rich burning the poor or each other a reciprocity hypothesis. After all, O. and Z. assumes that the rich are the very epitome of rationality. They are profit maximizers. Thus, they couldn’t be burning because, well, they could get away with it. Oswald and Zizzo accord the egalitarian strategy a sequential primacy that exists psychologically, even if it doesn't exist empirically. That is, the rich could be striking in the expectation that they will be struck.
However, one should notice -- or an old deconstructive veteran like myself notices -- the binary which is operating here. While the rich are operating on "intention" -- that is cognitively -- the poor are operating on "passion" -- the envy aroused by riches. Why, actually, don't we think that the poor are striking pre-emptively, like the rich? Especially as Zizzo's earlier experiment shows that the perception of the "unfair" accrual of wealth, which is prevalant among its benificiaries as well as among its victims, prompts further "unfair" action among its benificiaries. I.e., the undeserving rich steal. The unconscious bias of the experimenter consists in this: poverty denies one a full sense of self-interest. Thus, we interpret the actions of the poor, sacrificing to burn the rich, as envy, while we accord a sense of intellectual strategy to the wealthy who do the same thing. Oswald and Zizzo show themselves to be the worthy heirs of those nineteenth century economists who saw the laboring classes as so much betail, so much dangerous animality. An entity to be organized by the police, always liable to filch from the fortunate.

To put this another way -- we think the reciprocal thesis explains too much, is bounded by a circular definition, and is ultimately inseparable from passion itself. This passion expresses itself in the wealthy burning the wealthy -- surely, here, we aren't seeing a response to rank egalitarianism, but the play of pure power. Let's suggest to Z. and O. a most non-Anglo explanation for their findings, one explored by Mauss in his classic essai sur la don: one of the attributes of being rich is the ability to destroy. Destruction is the ultimate luxury. This is as true among Manhattanites as among the Kwaikutl. Zizzo and Oswald might want to reference such classics, in this vein, as various Beverly Hillbilly episodes, the tv show Dallas, and the dot com parties of 1999.
It is such power that the Occupy Wall Street people are protesting. Nobody gets wealthy just to continue getting wealthy – the miser is an obsolete figure. More and more wealth is needed to reinforce another passion, the cruel and relentless passion for power. At the heart of power is the power to destroy. Far from simply being envious, the poor are wise enough not to be deluded by the veil of rationality. The same can’t be said for many social scientists.

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