Self-Interest and the Design of Rules

Abstract

Rules regulating social behavior raise challenging questions about cultural evolution in part because they frequently confer group-level benefits. Current multilevel selection theories contend that between-group processes interact with within-group processes to produce norms and institutions, but within-group processes have remained underspecified, leading to a recent emphasis on cultural group selection as the primary driver of cultural design. Here we present the self-interested enforcement (SIE) hypothesis, which proposes that the design of rules importantly reflects the relative enforcement capacities of competing parties. We show that, in addition to explaining patterns in cultural change and stability, SIE can account for the emergence of much group-functional culture. We outline how this process can stifle or accelerate cultural group selection, depending on various social conditions. Self-interested enforcement has important bearings on the emergence, stability, and change of rules.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Researchers (e.g., Brauer and Chaurand 2010; Ellickson 1991) have noted that norm has two usages: (1) a behavior that is normal (descriptive) and (2) a behavior that people perform to avoid punishment (prescriptive). Here, and throughout the rest of this paper, we mean the latter, though note that such norms appear to sometimes develop from regularities in behavior (Opp 1982).

  2. 2.

    Boehm (2008b) presented instances in small-scale societies in which individuals understood that the purported supernatural enforcement of cooperative rules can promote desirable outcomes. For example, citing Gusinde (1961), he wrote, “An Ona informant said that even though real supernatural forces existed, there were also false beliefs which were useful because they contributed to the social order” (Boehm 2008b:144).

  3. 3.

    Theoretical and empirical evidence suggests that contributions to public goods (such as collective punishment) can be maintained by signaling benefits (Gintis et al. 2001; McAdams 1997). In particular, when group-members use an actor’s participation in collective punishment as an indication that the actor will cooperate in the future, and preferentially partner with these punishers, an actor can be incentivized to punish (e.g., Jordan et al. 2016). Note that this predicts that less-cohesive groups will be less capable of enforcing cooperative norms because the partner choice mechanisms that incentivize punishment will be less effective.

  4. 4.

    Peace treaties represent one of several potential pathways by which societies use enforced rules to curb or otherwise prevent ruinous cycles of blood revenge (Boehm 2011); see, for example, how states and colonial powers exercise force to stifle feuding (Pinker 2011), as well as how small-scale societies delegate executions to close kin to control revenge (Boehm 2012).

  5. 5.

    A recent study by Gurven et al. (2015) appears to violate this prediction, finding that greater market integration among the Tsimane does not correlate with weaker sharing norms. But the authors recognized that in this group, market involvement does not screen households from regular risk, and in some cases, market-integrated families experience new dangers, such as spousal sickness. In other words, market integration is not necessarily related to a decrease in interdependence, likely accounting for the persistence in sharing norms.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Christopher Boehm, Lee Cronk, Moshe Hoffman, Shane MacFarlan, Cristina Moya, Michael Muthukrishna, Jason Nemirow, Graham Noblit, Chris von Rueden, Matt Zefferman, and an anonymous reviewer for their valuable feedback and suggestions on earlier drafts of this manuscript.

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Singh, M., Wrangham, R. & Glowacki, L. Self-Interest and the Design of Rules. Hum Nat 28, 457–480 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-017-9298-7

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Keywords

  • Cultural evolution
  • Social evolution
  • Norms
  • Institutions
  • Self-interested enforcement