This “share-the-spoils” button has been discovered
Suppose scientists discovered a clump of neurons in the brain that, when stimulated, turned people into egalitarians. This would be good news for Democratic strategists and speechwriters, who could now get to work framing arguments about wealth and taxation in ways that might activate the relevant section of cerebral cortex.
This “share-the-spoils” button has been discovered, in a sense, but it may turn out to be harder to press than Democrats might think.
Pretend you’re a three-year-old, exploring an exciting new room full of toys. You and another child come up to a large machine that has some marbles inside, which you can see. There’s a rope running through the machine and the two ends of the rope hang out of the front, five feet apart. If you or your partner pulls on the rope alone, you just get more rope. But if you both pull at the same time, the rope dislodges some marbles, which you each get to keep. The marbles roll down a chute, and then they divide: one rolls into the cup in front of you, three roll into the cup in front of your partner.
This is the scenario created by developmental psychologists Michael Tomasello and Katharina Hamann at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany. In this situation, where both kids have to pull for anyone to get marbles, the children equalize the wealth about 75% of the time, with hardly any conflict. Either the “rich” kid hands over one marble spontaneously or else the “poor” kid asks for one and his request is immediately granted.
But an experiment must have more than one condition, and the experimenters ran two other versions of the study to isolate the active ingredient. What had led to such high rates of sharing, given that three-year-olds are often quite reluctant to share new treasures? Children who took part in the second condition found that the marbles were already waiting for them in the cups when they first walked up to the machine. No work required.
In this condition, it’s finders-keepers. If you have the bad luck to place yourself in front of the cup with one marble, then your partner is very unlikely to offer you one, you’re unlikely to ask, and if you do ask, you’re likely to be rebuffed. Only about 5% of the time did any marbles change hands.
But here’s the most amazing condition — a slight variation that reveals a deep truth. Things start off just as in the first condition: you and your partner see two ropes hanging out of the machine. But as you start tugging it becomes clear that they are two separate ropes. You pull yours, and one marble rolls out into your cup. Your partner pulls the other rope, and is rewarded with three marbles. What happens next?
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