William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Stream: Dice Games Prove Evolution Because Humans Believed In Punitive Gods?

Some men testing out whether they evolved from less altruistic beings.

Some men testing out whether they evolved from less altruistic beings.

Today’s post is at the Stream: Dice Games Prove Evolution Because Humans Believed In Punitive Gods?

Answer this question: could you, by counting the number of coins some guy puts into one of two cups, deduce that mankind evolved from brutes into cooperative, altruistic animals because men sometimes believed in the existence of punitive gods?

Because that’s exactly what Benjamin Grant Purzycki and eight others did, as documented by their peer-reviewed paper “Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality” published in the prestigious journal Nature…

What’s that? What were the dice games? Glad you asked…

The participants were told to mentally pick a box, their own or their confrere’s. Then they were told to toss a die, half the sides of which were painted black, half white. If the die came up black (a 50% chance), the participants had to put one coin into the box they pre-picked. If the die came up white, the participants had to put one coin into the box they didn’t picked…

Look: you’re in a room, unseen, and perhaps bored with this dumb dice game. You know you’re going to get to keep the coins in the self box. So you slide in an extra one, or maybe two. Who cares anyway? It’s just some silly experiment. Or, in Game Two, since you’re not benefiting, you might figure the split should be 50-50, and you notice that as the experiment runs along, the dice rolls are leaning one way or other, as dice will, so you “correct” the totals a little to make them closer to 50-50…

The big question is why. Why did (a few) people cheat or make mistakes (if they did)? Was it because they thought [name of god] would punish them if they didn’t? Maybe in some cases. Boredom? Surely in some cases. Wanting to please the researcher? Probably not infrequently. Forgetting which damn cup you picked and which color went with what cup? Absolutely. Or some other of hundreds of other possible reasons? You bet…

Go there and read the shocking conclusion! No, seriously, go. It helps keep me fed.

21 Comments

  1. Do they get any credit for sampling from “from eight diverse communities from around the world” instead of white American college students?

  2. I used to play this game with my younger brother when he was about four and me at six knew some number tricks, with lollies. One for you and one for me. The second for you and two for me. The third for you and three for me.
    1+1+1 went into his pile. 1+2+3 went into mine.
    And I’m still a firm believer in a sometimes friendly God, which disproves the wee pee values of social science sillyness.

  3. Gary,

    Avoiding WEIRD is a point in their favor, I think. Not too often that you see that.

    On the other hand, the “punishment index” is so ridiculous that it’s hard to give them any credit.

  4. My first thought : WHAT???? Humans are not altruistic, cooperative animals. I always figured there must be a god or evolution would have taken out humans centuries ago.

    Did anyone test to see if using a dice game to figure out stuff is correlated to the intake of pharmaceuticals or adult beverages on part of the researchers?

    Again, this is giving my psychic more and more credibility. She uses dice, cards, tarot cards and a crystal ball. Scientifically, she appears to be rock solid. 🙂

    At one time, social “science” did try to be science. However, considering much science is done with fabricated data, maybe this is just following mainstream science. I must say a first-year psych student from 30 years ago could have devised a better experiment at 2AM. This is a sad commentary on how very, very poor science research has become.

    Gary: I guess a bit of credit, but I suspect the eight diverse communities are the reason for the simplicity of the experiment. It was too difficult to set up a more complex experiment with such diversity. (Also, might be tough finding college kids who believe in God or punishment.)

  5. Religion itself may have partly evolved from children’s folk tales, stories designed to get them to behave. In some ways, it really works, and is one of the few saving graces (pun intended) for religion, an otherwise irrational and often psychologically unhealthy thing.

    JMJ

  6. “Religion itself may have partly evolved from children’s folk tales…”

    Show me the p-value!

  7. Forgetting which damn cup you picked and which color went with what cup? Absolutely.

    “Show me the p-value! So silly.

    Briggs,

    The big question is why. Why did (a few) people cheat or make mistakes (if they did)? Was it because they thought [name of god] would punish them if they didn’t? Maybe in some cases. Boredom? Surely in some cases. Wanting to please the researcher? Probably not infrequently. Forgetting which damn cup you picked and which color went with what cup? Absolutely. Or some other of hundreds of other possible reasons? You bet…
    Why? It seems this is why the authors are trying to explain? But you don’t buy their results.

    How would you propose to answer the question?

    Answer this question: could you, by counting the number of coins some guy puts into one of two cups, deduce that mankind evolved from brutes into cooperative, altruistic animals because men sometimes believed in the existence of punitive gods?
    Of course, the authors did more than just the above.

  8. Briggs,

    The big question is why. Why did (a few) people cheat or make mistakes (if they did)? Was it because they thought [name of god] would punish them if they didn’t? Maybe in some cases. Boredom? Surely in some cases. Wanting to please the researcher? Probably not infrequently. Forgetting which damn cup you picked and which color went with what cup? Absolutely. Or some other of hundreds of other possible reasons? You bet…

    Why? It seems this is why the authors are trying to explain? But you don’t buy their results.

    How would you propose to answer the question?

    Answer this question: could you, by counting the number of coins some guy puts into one of two cups, deduce that mankind evolved from brutes into cooperative, altruistic animals because men sometimes believed in the existence of punitive gods?

    Of course, the authors did more than just the above.

  9. Really, JMJ, you’re commenting on “psychologically unhealthty”? Pot kettle, kettle pot.

    dover_beach: Nice one.

    JH: The authors made a very poor attempt to prove something and proved nothing except social “science” is anything but science. A couple of simple dice games cannot even come close to explaining anything about God, social behaviour, etc. It’s intellectually lazy.

  10. Gary in Erko,

    I played a similar trick on my brother. I would neatly stack a larger number of candies, gum, etc. and then spread out a lesser number in an unorganized pile and ask him to choose. He would always choose the messy pile because, to him, it looked like more.

  11. Not only is this article a bad idea, it is using what seems to me a complete misunderstanding of evolution theory within an assumption that has also been woven into the study.
    Oh yes, and they’ve woven our ancestor’s God relationship into the mix.

    JH, please tell me you are kidding, the person who makes the claim, I don’t mean you, bares the burden of proof don’t they?

  12. Sheri,
    Have you read the paper from the beginning to the end? A yes-no question?

    Joy,
    What was I kidding about? Have you read the paper from the beginning to the end? A yes-no question.

  13. Joy,
    I didn’t ask Briggs to prove anything, did I? I asked how he would go about answering the big question, “why?” Am I kidding here? No.

  14. JH: Sorry. Yes/no is too short an answer and cannot be done. WordPress says no dice.

  15. Steve E, but in order to verify or not the point of this very schalarly study we need to know whether you’re religious or not. If you’re non-altruistic (like our games) and non-religious then that proves it by negation, or it doesn’t. I’m not sure about double negatives, or not, however, but. Please try to treat it seriously because I can’t and someone should, I think, or maybe not.

  16. JH, Not joking, then.
    No, I didn’t read the paper from start to Finnish I didn’t read the start.

    It’s not to be taken seriously. I will read it though if you think it will help.
    You and I both know the exercise is a lost cause.

    I take bad science seriously when it impinges or as a lesson by bad example. The summary, The Title let alone the experiment tells me that they won’t ‘succeed’ (something tells me I think they think they did succeed), I should say the proposition is preposterous.

    If such a thing were entertaining to me for comic relief I would have partaken but since it makes me cringe and is irritating I let other unfortunates like Mr Briggs read these things.

    Are we being lead up the garden?
    I will read it now though, oh, it is long? Do they mention probing evolutionary underpinnings? or school based water intervention?
    You might call it intellectual dishonesty, I call it self preservation.
    More Tea!

  17. genetic relatedness
    You see I haven’t got far and already I’m irritated.

  18. JH: Long answer to please WordPress: Yes.

  19. Comments on study based on reading enitre study
    (Hint: reading the whole thing just further verifies how really, really bad it is.):

    In order to be certain it was Gods and not something like say, self-interest or the human tendency to run with like individuals, be it race, religion, politics, or whatever, the researchers should have repeated the experiment using political beliefs and perhaps ecological beliefs. Of course, one would have to include “punitive” political beliefs like people should be jailed by the thought police and “punitive” ecological beliefs like “skeptics should be jailed”. This would include the punitive nature of the belief as far as researchers would be concerned. I suspect that ALL punitive policies would illicit more coins in the box. That, assuming they can show dice and coins equal liking someone, which is HIGHLY questionable. Yes, I read they did a large set of binomial regressions, but sorry, that doesn’t prove anything except they can do binomial regressions or have software that does it for them.

    They are referencing questionable studies in their footnotes, some of which have questionable assumptions. This is common in “academic research”. Building on bad studies results in more bad studies.

    No Muslim or Islamic god was included—probably an oversight? Only 591 participants. Participants playing in private may make the subjects more likely to play “correctly” or it may encourage them to cheat or hurry up and just through coins in boxes. Is there evidence that the games work cross-culturally? Researchers defined “punitive”, not participants. Many participants may have disagreed with the assessment if asked. Again, the researcher believe that “punishing murder” is a punitive god, while participants might have laughed at the researchers if they know about this. As far as I can tell, researchers seem to be the only ones that think murder should not be punished.

  20. ‘Subscribe for $199. to read the full article‘ or just rent it for a fiver. sorry JH,
    I checked out the part which is not secret.

    Note phoney “prosociality” word. It’s loaded and unnecessary. That someone can invent a word for a thing doesn’t make the thing true.

    “Since the origins of agriculture, the scale of human cooperation and societal complexity has dramatically expanded’

    From when to when exactly are they speaking? The dark ages? before history was
    written down? It’s not long ago in evolutionary timescales.

    “This fact challenges standard evolutionary explanations of prosociality because well-studied mechanisms of cooperation based on genetic relatedness, reciprocity and partner choice falter as people increasingly engage in fleeting transactions with genetically unrelated strangers in large anonymous groups.”

    “…falter as people increasingly engage in fleeting transactions with genetically unrelated strangers in large anonymous groups.”

    Reciprocity works even amongst animals of different species. There are examples of animals from different groups or from the same species tolerating each other. The birds in the garden. It’s not a stretch to think that if humans tolerated each other that they might swap or trade for mutual benefit, however large the group and however “strange” There is still benefit. Morals and Altruism are an altogether different thing.

    The “Moralistic God’s punishment index”

    Gods in the plural are created Gods and there are countless named created Gods which come from the same place as “the moralistic God’s punishment index”. They are a construction of the mind. There are good ideas and bad ones and this was a bad one.

    If we are all made in God’s image, then moral capacity is primitively innate.

    Why would they dream of trying to prove or show it by this method? I wouldn’t think there’s an experiment out there that would show such a thing; I wouldn’t look to Mauritius but it’s a lovely place. We have other evidence from history, archeology, arts and sciences regarding when, how and can only imagine why things changed.

  21. Joy: Wise decision on saving the fiver. As I noted, reading the whole study just made it look worse, if that’s possible.

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