Empathy, 2 year olds, and the free rider problem

I heard this story on NPR recently, and then when I saw this tweet by @hrheingold, I remembered that I’d wanted to look up the article in Nature, which I did:

Fehr, E., Bernhard, H., & Rockenbach, B. (2008). Egalitarianism in young children. Nature, 454(7208), 1079-1083.

As the parent of a child who is deep in the throes of the Terrible Twos, I’m extremely interested in this research that shows that egalitarianism and empathy develops between ages 7-8. Because a 2 year-old sure hasn’t got any.

In searching for this article, I stumbled across an older paper by one of the same authors, Ernst Fehr:

Fehr, E., & Gachter, S. (2002). Altruistic punishment in humans. Nature, 415(6868), 137-140.

This is yet another article that I take to be on the topic of my obsession, what motivates people to participate in open projects. Though actually, the more I live with this particular obsession, the more I realize what it’s really about is the Free Rider problem, or more accurately, why in certain contexts the Free Rider problem appears not to exist, or at least is not a problem.

For my money, the interesting thing about this 2001 article is that it makes the case that there’s an evolutionary basis for cooperation. Which means that free ridership is the anomaly, not the other way around. Which means that my failure to understand the motivation to not free-ride means that I’m a sociopath, or a Neanderthal, or something.

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One Response to Empathy, 2 year olds, and the free rider problem

  1. P&P says:

    I’ve done some work with why people donate (both money and time) to non-profits, particularly when there is no obvious benefit to the donor.
    Arthur Brooks at Syracuse has written a book on this topic, which when you think about it also ties into the Free Rider Problem.

    His research indicates that people with lower-income and more conservative views tend to donate more money than the typical ‘liberal.’ There are a myraid of reasons, however one of them is that people tend to be more generous when they’re close to the problem and have a sense of empathy towards those they’re trying to help.

    Perhaps people opt to work on open projects because they feel a kinship with those who need assistance (e.g. explaining a statistical concept in Wikipedia).

    I guess Deanna Troi had it right…………..

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