Monday, April 01, 2013

Chimps are Status Obsessed

In this TED talk by Colin Camerer, he notes that chimps are human's closest cousins.  They are also status obsessed. In contrast, the concept of wealth is totally foreign to a chimp, as property rights aren't something they can really handle.

In my book, the Missing Risk Premium, I argue the fundamental status orientation is why there is no risk premium in general, and why the perverse demand for low volatility assets is not arbitraged away (benchmark risk prevents this).  This explanation is not even acknowledged by most (all?) academics for explaining things like the low volatility anomaly.

Economists assume the main motivator is what can best be defined as greed, while I'm arguing envy is more important. I don't think it should be this way, that's a normative issue, I'm just saying that's how people behave. Indeed, I agree that an economist's conception of self-interest would be a major improvement: short-sighted selfishness is worse than long-sighted selfishness, but it's not nearly as destructive as envy. Alas, economists have the standard bias of thinking that everyone thinks as they do. Further, they have the bias that since it would be nicer to think people are not so much envious as rationally self-interested, it has to be true.

Humans have been genetically the same for about 50k years, and only in the past 350 years have we really changed life for your average person. The American Plains Indians had no conception of property rights when Columbus got here, and it highlights an earlier stage of society, more like our chimp cousins and the instincts they bequeathed us. It's nice to think that hunter-gatherer's are more peace-loving, and more in tune with the environment, more authentic, etc., when actually they are homicidal, dogmatic, and status obsessed; their lack of greed isn't a feature, it's a bug.

It's good to appeal to higher aspirations, like telling your children they should aspire, not to be great men, but good men, because great men are often insufficiently empathetic. Yet, we shouldn't presume people are more greedy than envious, which is easy to do because most articulate chimps hide their envy behind altruism, as attacks on the 1% are presumably about wanting less injustice via equity. This is true for some, but I suspect it's not true for the vast majority, who simply want to knock those on top down closer to their level.


Alex R said...

In a world of limited resources, or in a winner-take-all-or-most world, there is little difference between seeking to maximize one's relative wealth and one's absolute wealth. For most of human history -- from the end of the agricultural revolution to the beginning of the industrial, trying to maximize one's own material well-being usually meant doing so relative to the material well-being of others. Even in today's world, there are plenty of zero-sum domains where if you "win", someone else "loses". There are only so many Picassos and Renoirs, only so many square feet of Manhattan real estate: for you to have more, someone else must have less.
In any event, it shouldn't be surprising that people focus on relative status: for most of human history and to some extent still today, that's been the simplest way to assess one's absolute wealth compared to how wealthy one could be...

Mercury said...

“Humans have been genetically same for about 50k years,…”

Well, maybe within specific contexts such as the innate motivators behind human nature but more broadly this is essentially what the “disparate impact” argument implies. Not sure you can have it both ways here.

spandrell said...

Not sure why you put the cut-off at 50k years instead of anything else. Or why put a cut-off at all.

The point is solid though. People of course are more envious than they are greedy.
What is greed though, if just a different way of acquiring status?

At first thought envy seems more a reaction to greed than the other way around though. So which was first? Non-social animals look quite greedy.

Anonymous said...

That’s probably the time period when some homo sapiens first left the nest.

William Newman said...

Humans have not been the same for 50k years: that is a politically handy dogma, but it is not true. It is true that approaching 50k years ago is the famous first appearance of representative art, so that sometime on the order of 50k years ago makes a reasonable choice of cutoff date for thinking of hominids as clearly borderline humans. (Before that we can maybe sorta kinda think of them as ridiculously dextrous apes who trained each other throw pointy things and to keep fires going and sometimes to bury each other with grave goods.) But it is not reasonable to think of change since then as unimportant. For a rather tidy example of significant change within the last 10k years, look at lactase persistence. It is a single mutation whose practical effect is fairly easy to understand, and it became common within subpopulations among whom plausibly (even from classic archaeological evidence, before molecular biology techniques were developed) domesticated dairy animals were common.

matthew. said...

I'm super glad you compared Aboriginal people to chimps. That seems legit, please continue being gross.

Also, your reductive analysis of human evolution is painful to read

Akshay said...

As for the comparison of Native Americans to chimps, i believe that the point of article was to display how even today the supposedly modern man shares some basic instincts like envy with our biological cousins(who share 98% of our DNA in any case). It would be totally appropriate to compare some of your/my features with chimps.

PS- I use native americans instead of Indians cuz I like to think of myself as an actual Indian :)

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