A “farmer curve” is a graph which charts the chance of an event occurring against how bad that event will be, in effect calculating how risky a particular situation is. It’s a fairly handy tool that can help you work out whether should take the gamble and in an ideal world humans would use it to ensure they aren’t doing anything especially stupid. However, as most of you have noticed humans are idiots, frequently taking frivolous risks. Understanding why people behave in such an illogical manner has greatly interested psychologists and they’ve been studying why we take risks we shouldn’t.
Such research has consistently shown that social context is a primary cause of increased risk taking. When somebody else wants the same thing you do you’re more likely to take greater risks to ensure you get it. Such work could help us to try and stop taking unnecessary risks, for example by limiting how competitive a situation is. This research has also been used as justification for some evolutionary explanations of this behaviour. For example, we’re more likely to take risks in a competitive situation because we’ve evolved to use competition as a proxy for a resource’s value. Obtaining such high-value resources in turn would boost our status, increasing our chances of finding a mate.
Now new research has also identified such effects in chimps and bonobos – our closest relatives – providing further support for these evolutionary explanations. Scientists presented 3&6 bushels of ape (or 36 ape-tons for fans of the metric system) with two bowls of food. One was shown to contain an average reward whilst the other could contain a better reward. Or not. It was an unknown, risky option! The ape then had to choose which bowl they wanted – either the risky one or the safe bet. However sometimes a scientist would tease the ape with food, an action interpreted by the chimp/bonobo as competition for food (the researchers weren’t just being dicks).
The researchers found that when the human “competed” for the food the ape was significantly more likely to pick the riskier option in the bowl choosing experiment, much like a human would. Given the cross-species prevalence of this behaviour it would seem to lend credence to the idea that we have evolved to use competition as a proxy for value and so will be more likely to take risks in an effort to gain a resource in high demand. As an interesting aside, bonobos were less likely to pick the risky option than chimps (although still more likely in the competitive scenario than non-competitive one). Might this be an reflection on the social differences between the two species?
They also did a similar experiment but they played with the apes rather than competing with them. This served as an additional control on the test, checking that it wasn’t any interaction which caused an increase in risk taking. It might also provide clues as to how to reduce the desire to take risks in people. Could positive interactions make us less likely to gamble? Sadly for any social engineers, the answer is no. Positive interaction does not influence risk taking behaviour. On a more positive note this indicates that the results from the previous experiment are reliable.
So it would seem increased risk taking in competitive scenarios is an evolved response. But then, this research doesn’t provide any definitive evidence that this is the case. This is one of the criticisms which has hounded evolutionary psychology with many noting the “just so” stories it offers cannot be proven (in the scientific sense). For example, nobody has tested to see if those who take greater risks to gather resources will actually have more children. Indeed, it may be the case that such an experiment is essentially impossible due to the length of time it takes to observe the reproductive lifespan of Homo sapiens. Although this problem can be circumvented in some situations, it’s enough that some have suggested that evolutionary psychology is a futile endeavour.
However, this research does provide some plausibility for the EvoPsych explanation. Although it might not be definitive proof it still is evidence for the idea and so – provided you don’t exaggerate how certain the results are – this is a good piece of research. It provides clues on how human behaviour evolved, not to mention reveals some interesting quirks in chimp and bonobo behaviour. It might not convince you of EvoPsych if you’re already dismissive of it but I think it’s good work nonetheless.
|Rosati A, Hare B (2012). Decision making across social contexts: competition increases preferences for risk in chimpanzees and bonobos Animal Behaviour DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2012.07.010|