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Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment

Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment

Randolph M. Nesse EDITOR
Copyright Date: 2001
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment
    Book Description:

    Commitment is at the core of social life. The social fabric is woven from promises and threats that are not always immediately advantageous to the parties involved. Many commitments, such as signing a contract, are fairly straightforward deals, in which both parties agree to give up certain options. Other commitments, such as the promise of life-long love or a threat of murder, are based on more intangible factors such as human emotions. InEvolution and the Capacity for Commitment, distinguished researchers from the fields of economics, psychology, ethology, anthropology, philosophy, medicine, and law offer a rich variety of perspectives on the nature of commitment and question whether the capacity for making, assessing, and keeping commitments has been shaped by natural selection.

    Game theorists have shown that players who use commitment strategies-by learning to convey subjective offers and to gauge commitments others are willing to make-achieve greater success than those who rationally calculate every move for immediate reward.Evolution and the Capacity for Commitmentincludes contributions from some of the pioneering students of commitment. Their elegant analyses highlight the critical role of reputation-building, and show the importance of investigating how people can believe that others would carry out promises or threats that go against their own self-interest. Other contributors provide real-world examples of commitment across cultures and suggest the evolutionary origins of the capacity for commitment.

    Perhaps nowhere is the importance of commitment and reputation more evident than in the institutions of law, medicine, and religion. Essays by professionals in each field explore why many practitioners remain largely ethical in spite of manifest opportunities for client exploitation. Finally,Evolution and the Capacity for Commitmentturns to leading animal behavior experts to explore whether non-humans also use commitment strategies, most notably through the transmission of threats or signs of non-aggression. Such examples illustrate how such tendencies in humans may have evolved.

    Viewed as an adaptive evolutionary strategy, commitment offers enormous potential for explaining complex and irrational emotional behaviors within a biological framework.Evolution and the Capacity for Commitmentpresents compelling evidence for this view, and offers a potential bridge across the current rift between biology and the social sciences.

    A Volume in the Russell Sage Foundation Series on Trust

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-425-5
    Subjects: Psychology, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Contributors
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Foreword: Beyond Selfishness in Modeling Human Behavior
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
    Herbert Gintis

    Early this morning, while the coffee was brewing and I was mulling over this preface that I was about to write, I glanced at the SpringfieldUnion News.Here are just a few of the stories for this perfectly typical day.

    Front page center: Buckland, Massachusetts, USA. A picture of a nineteen-year-old boy, graduated from high school the previous night, nattily dressed with dictionaries and encyclopedias under his arm, smiling and giving the thumbs-up. He has Down syndrome. Last October he played his first varsity soccer game. “His teammates thought so much of the occasion,” the story reads, “they carried...

  6. Chapter 1 Natural Selection and the Capacity for Subjective Commitment
    (pp. 1-44)
    Randolph M. Nesse

    Once you recognize them, commitments are everywhere. The commitment we all know is marriage. By giving up the option to leave for someone else, spouses gain security and an opportunity for a much deeper (and more efficient!) relationship than would otherwise be possible. Yet many commitments are not at all nice. When John F. Kennedy committed the United States to eliminating missiles from Cuba, millions of human lives were put at risk. When a thuggish-looking man offers unrequested fire insurance to a small retail shop, the implied threat of arson may well influence the owner’s behavior. In a more banal...


    • [Part I Introduction]
      (pp. 45-47)

      The first challenge is to define the object of inquiry. The three chapters in this section provide definitions and examples of commitment from the best possible sources: Thomas Schelling, Robert Frank, and Jack Hirshleifer, the three economists who have done the most to develop the theory. Their chapters establish a common ground for the generic idea of commitment, and reveal interesting variations in perspectives.

      All of them emphasize that commitments are strategies that work by changing what others believe, and that commitments are interesting mainly when they are for actions that would not otherwise be expected. Thus, intrinsic to the...

    • Chapter 2 Commitment: Deliberate Versus Involuntary
      (pp. 48-56)
      Thomas C. Schelling

      Forty-one years ago I wrote about commitment (Schelling 1960a), and some colleagues have conjectured that I originated the concept. While this pleases me, I must decline. I was scooped by at least 2,400 years. When the Greek, Xenophon, pursued by Persians, halted against an almost impassable ravine, one of his generals expressed alarm that they would have no escape. Xenophon reassured him.

      As for the argument that ... we are putting a difficult ravine in our rear just when we are going to fight, is not this really something that we ought to jump at? I should like the enemy...

    • Chapter 3 Cooperation Through Emotional Commitment
      (pp. 57-76)
      Robert H. Frank

      The idea that people can improve their lot by making commitments that restrict their options has received considerable attention from economists and philosophers (Schelling 1960,1978; Akerlof 1983; Parfit 1984; Gauthier 1985; Sen 1985; Frank 1987, 1988; Hirshleifer 1987; McClennan 1990; Gibbard 1990). The most vivid illustration remains an early example offered by Schelling (1960), who described a kidnapper who suddenly gets cold feet. He wants to set his victim free but is afraid the victim will go to the police. In return for his freedom the victim gladly promises not to do so. The problem, however, is that both realize...

    • Chapter 4 Game-Theoretic Interpretations of Commitment
      (pp. 77-94)
      Jack Hirshleifer

      In his contribution to this volume, Thomas C. Schelling disclaims having originated the concept of commitment. Even if that disclaimer is accepted, a strong case remains for recognizing him as inventor at least of the game-theoretic approach to the commitment problem (Schelling 1960). This chapter follows Schelling’s lead, employing the tools of game theory in the hope of providing more precision and rigor to a concept often discussed rather too loosely.

      More specifically, I will address the following topics:

      How does the concept of commitment relate to the categories of game theory: strategies, payoffs, moves, information sets, and so forth?...


    • [Part II Introduction]
      (pp. 95-98)

      The chapters in Part I define and describe commitment. Those in Part II address the questions of whether examples can be found in animal behavior, and whether we even should expect to find them. These apparently simple questions demand even more careful consideration of what exactly we mean by commitment: Is it simply giving up options, or is it signaling that one will, in a future situation, act in ways not directly in one’s interests? The rigor of modem animal behavior research is evident as each chapter asks what criteria can distinguish a possible example of commitment from other related...

    • Chapter 5 Threat Displays in Animal Communication: Handicaps, Reputations, and Commitments
      (pp. 99-119)
      Eldridge S. Adams

      The strategic roles of animal threats are strikingly similar to those described for humans, despite independent origins. Threats are signals that reduce the probability or severity of aggressive behavior by opponents during conflicts. This interpretation is widely accepted by ethologists and behavioral ecologists and is well supported by experimental and observational studies. (For recent reviews of the biology of animal communication see Bradbury and Vehrencamp 1998; Hauser 1996; Johnstone 1997). Not so obvious, however, is why threats are effective, and whether the reasons why are the same in humans as in other animals. The essential problem is easily stated: if...

    • Chapter 6 Subjective Commitment in Nonhumans: What Should We Be Looking for, and Where Should We Be Looking?
      (pp. 120-137)
      Lee Alan Dugatkin

      As funny as the Groucho quote is, it also captures a fascinating yet relatively unexplored aspect of human behavior. We often make commitments that appear not to be in our own interest, at least not in any direct, short-term sense. Yet the nature of such commitments (be they positive or negative) are only now being investigated seriously. As is evident from other contributions to this volume, human subjective commitment has now caught the attention of some of the leading thinkers in anthropology, psychology, economics, political science, evolutionary biology, and behavioral ecology. The focus of this chapter will be on the...

    • Chapter 7 Grunts, Girneys, and Good Intentions: The Origins of Strategic Commitment in Nonhuman Primates
      (pp. 138-158)
      Joan B. Silk

      Social groups are composed of individuals with very different interests, needs, and abilities. Despite these differences, members of social groups manage to synchronize their activities; negotiate about certain kinds of decisions; anticipate what others will do in certain situations; and broker social transactions that include cooperative and competitive elements. To accomplish these feats, primates somehow must provide information to others about their dispositions and intentions. Detailed observations of the behavior of many species reveal that monkeys and apes use a variety of signals to communicate this information. Some of these signals function as generic commitments, and convey information about what...


    • [Part III Introduction]
      (pp. 159-162)

      In animals, the question is whether the concept of commitment is necessary to explain observed behavior. In humans, commitment is ubiquitous. For us, the question is not whether we use commitments but how they work and how we became capable of using and assessing them. The first chapter in this section, by Cohen and VandelIo, offers a detailed examination of a superb example of commitment, the psychology and sociology of honor. The next chapter, by Richerson and Boyd, tackles the core question of how our individual psychology has been shaped to a form that makes stable cooperation possible in human...

    • Chapter 8 Honor and “Faking” Honorability
      (pp. 163-185)
      Dov Cohen and Joseph Vandello

      For over 200 years, Southerners of the United States have been known to be pricklish about their sense of honor. As an observer in the 1700s noted, quarrels in the South developed when one party

      Has in a merry hour called [the other] a Lubber or a thick-Skull or a Buckskin, or a Scotsman, or perhaps one has mislaid the other’s hat, or knocked a peach out of his Hand, or offered him a dram without wiping the mouth of the Bottle; all these, and ten thousand more quite as trifling and ridiculous are thought and accepted as just Causes...

    • Chapter 9 The Evolution of Subjective Commitment to Groups: A Tribal Instincts Hypothesis
      (pp. 186-220)
      Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd

      Expressions of commitment to group goals are commonplace. At the time of this writing, the daily newspaper reports that several foreign affairs departments from Western nations are exerting pressure on Russia to suspend its offensive in Chechnya and begin peace negotiations. The Chechen president is committed to peace talks, but the current war seemingly has begun because Russia doubts his government’s commitment to control Islamic revolutionaries apparently committed to the armed expansion of their style of regime into neighboring Dagestan. The president of Syria and the prime minister of Israel have expressed commitments to peace between their nations and the...

    • Chapter 10 Morality and Commitment
      (pp. 221-236)
      Michael Ruse

      Today much interest has been shown in naturalistic approaches to ethics, particularly in bringing evolutionary thinking (Darwinian evolutionary thinking in particular) to bear on our understanding of morality. Especially with the coming of human sociobiology and the attempt to explain human social behavior in Darwinian terms of natural selection, a growing number of scientists and philosophers has argued that morality-this most important, defining feature of what it is to be human-simply must yield to evolutionary analysis (Wilson 1978; Alexander 1987; Mackie 1978; Murphy 1982; Ruse 1986, 1989, 1995). In the hope of carrying discussion further, here the focus will be...


    • [Part IV Introduction]
      (pp. 237-239)

      The previous chapters build to the general conclusion that humans are intrinsically social animals whose psychology cannot be understood without a solid foundation of knowledge about the benefits and costs of social life, the social strategies we use, and how our emotional capacities make these strategies possible. Many of our relationships and memberships in groups clearly are based on commitment. Now we can finally consider several examples of social institutions to see if they offer evidence on the importance of commitment, and if ideas about commitment can help us to better understand social life. Our examples come from medicine, law,...

    • Chapter 11 Commitment in the Clinic
      (pp. 240-261)
      Randolph M. Nesse

      Human beings are difficult to understand in large part because they are so irrational. If they would simply maximize their inclusive fitness in a straightforward way, their actions—and their difficulties—would be far easier to understand and treat; but they don’t. Their behavior (our behavior!) often arises from passions that induce actions that seem to have nothing to do with a sensible reproductive strategy.

      A woman comes to the clinic depressed because her life is constricting as she cares for her demanding husband, who is being progressively impaired by multiple sclerosis. Attractive, wealthy men encourage her to leave, but...

    • Chapter 12 Law and the Biology of Commitment
      (pp. 262-291)
      Oliver R. Goodenough

      Has natural selection shaped a human capacity for subjective commitment? This is really not a single question, but many. This chapter will explore a number of these embedded issues, looking to the law as a source of evidence on human psychology. To begin with, what do we mean by commitment? In the evolutionary context the idea grows out of problems in the interaction of separate biological entities. There are often benefits to be gained by all participants from a coordinated action, but achieving coordination presents problems (for example, Dugatkin 1997). A basic difficulty is often illustrated by the game theory...

    • Chapter 13 Religion as a Hard-to-Fake Sign of Commitment
      (pp. 292-309)
      William Irons

      This chapter presents a theory of religion derived from thinking in game theory about the strategic value of commitments and hard-to-fake signals of commitment (Schelling 1960; Hirshleifer 1987; Frank 1988). An inflexible commitment to behave in a particular way can serve one's interests in the majority of cases even if in particular situations the behavior is contrary to self-interest. Such a commitment does this by changing what others expect from us and thereby changing the way they behave toward us. For example, a commitment to be scrupulously honest in dealing with others can cause them to trust us in situations...

    • Chapter 14 The Future of Commitment
      (pp. 310-326)
      Randolph M. Nesse

      In 1883 Lord Kelvin mounted a major challenge to Darwin’s theory. He claimed that the time required for evolution was inconsistent with the laws of physics. “Essential principles of thermodynamics have been overlooked.... It is quite certain that the solar system cannot have gone on, even as present, for a few hundred thousand or a few million years, without an irrevocable loss... of a very considerable proportion of the entire energy initially in store” (Kelvin, Tait, and Darwin 1888,468–69). He reasoned that the sun’s heat must come mainly from the friction of meteors, because “No other action, except by...

  11. Index
    (pp. 327-334)