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The Game Theory of Anonymous Donations (nautil.us)
124 points by dnetesn on June 9, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 44 comments

There's another factor not mentioned in the article. Maybe it's not an issue for the rich. Avoiding getting put on mailing lists that are then shared with other charities that then drown you in passive aggressive guilt inducing junk mail or unsolicited phone calls.

This. The past few years, I've been making most of my donations through Colorado Gives Foundation, and I give anonymously. The various organizations get my money but not my address or phone. I can ignore all the unsolicited mail. If someone calls, I tell them I make all my donations in December, and I'll keep them in mind then, but not now.

Ah, very true. I’m sure it happens but they likely have a secretary or other means to shield themselves from the worst if it.

What if people are giving out of a genuine desire to do good?

A bee sacrificing her life to fend off an attacker has an absolutely genuine desire to do good by it's hive. Even a rational organism like a human could act on moral and behavioral biases that emerged under selfish gene evolutionary pressure.

An example could be our strong tendency to protect children, young ones especially, a bias we share with most other vertebrates. Protecting the children is a sacred cow in almost any human society, even to the expense of adults. From an utilitarian and philosophical point of view, that's entirely debatable since children represent a lower investment of resources compared to a productive adult and are much easier to replace. It's hard to prove that very young children are barely even conscious.

When we understand children as the depositories of their parents genes, the strong moral imperative to save children even at the expense of the parent's own life becomes easier to understand. There's no contradiction between viewing protecting children as the right and moral thing to do, and observing that said morality is indelibly linked to our evolution.

Exactly this. It seems the article and most nerds assume the conclusion that giving must be for reputation enhancement.

Well, desires can only exist if there are rewards. You are implying people can desire things without rewards, but that would be against human nature.

If you want a particular thing to happen, you can support that thing without getting public credit and be happy that the thing is happening.

If you make the world a better place, you get to live in a better place. It can be a form of enlightened self interest.

Mating has no reward to you other than how it makes you feel. The real benefit is to your genes which get to reproduce.

Altruism may improve your environment as well as that of your offspring. Such behavior could be genetically selected for even in species without a big enough brain to have "motives" with known rewards. Cooperation happens in all sorts of creatures.

A good feeling is a reward... feeling that you are 'doing good' for a cause you are interested in can create that good feeling, a.k.a. a reward.

Sure, biology can not only wire a behavior, it can provide a good feeling/reward as well. My point was that this can come about through evolution rather than having hidden motives or deliberately playing "game theory" stuff. It is sufficient for a behavior to benefit your genes - no psychology required.

There can be private rewards that are not socially visible, e.g.

- donating to the favorite charity of a deceased friend

- donating to a charity whose goals are aligned with your belief system

Why do you vote?

To me giving to charity is like voting, but with some weight behind it.

Voting is trying to influence the chances that shit happens, while giving money is putting fuel in the machine that makes shit happen.

You're basically arguing that there are only extrinsic motivators. But it's pretty well researched science that intrinsic motivations exist as well.

An intrinsic motivation can also be considered reward. Discussions like this just devolve into arguing over definitions anyway.

Yes of course. However, some of those motivations are something other than reputation enhancement, which seems to be a surprisingly novel concept for a few commentators in this thread.

Many aspects of modern life could be called unnatural. Just because something is (allegedly) unnatural doesn't mean it's undesirable and certainly doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. There are many people who genuinely wish to help others and aren't looking for anything in particular in return, and if that's unnatural, then I'd say it's an improvement over natural human tendencies.

“You are implying”

Ok. “You are wrong.” Reward is a gigantic superset of reputation enhancement.

Good question. From a game theoretic perspective, agents (players) are assumed to be self-interested in a non-cooperative setting if I recall. Maybe someone can comment on this a bit further.

This is a great question for philosopher sniping. But it's not so great for actually drawing conclusions about the world. A "genuine desire to do good" doesn't really mean anything.

This is a rather trite response. I've personally made multiple donations here and there because I thought the organizations are poised to have a positive long term impact on humanity. I don't freely share that information.

I'm pretty confident that I'm not a crazy outlier, and that this behavior is mundane and common.

None of that really has anything to do with my point about the phrase "a genuine desire to do good" being vacuous. If you think my observation is too trite to be useful, juxtapose it against the dozen commenters attempting to reconstruct altruism from evolutionary first principles.

Meaningless questions don't merit serious debate just because they're grammatically coherent. We could come up with any number of questions like this which will yield at least n + 1 opinions for every n people we ask.

Do you believe in true altruism? If so, how do you think it arose in the human population?

Evolution and natural selection suggests that even if you think your desires are purely altruistic, at some deeper level there's always a selfish reason behind them, because otherwise the allegedly-altruistic trait wouldn't have been able to evolve and thrive.

That sounds a lot like the neoclassical economist's argument that everything everybody does is actually all in their own self-interest, which then goes on to increasingly tortured lengths to explain things like altruistic punishment that are pretty well-demonstrated in the lab, but don't pop up in neoclassical models until they are confronted with uncomfortable facts. If your definition of "altruism" is such that you can explain away any possible example of it, then the issue is not that altruism doesn't exist, but rather that your definition of it is so odd as to not match the common meaning of the word.

Alternatively, it can also indicate that going to great lengths to litigate the difference between "true altruism" and "signalled altruism" is unproductive. Under this paradigm, the final effect is more important than navel gazing about secret intentions.

Altruism helps the group and others. And helping the group and others means they help you when you need it. It also helps the species as a whole. So it seems an altruism trait would be conserved for that reason. But that doesn’t make the trait selfish. The trait may have expected nothing in return when it developed, it just so happened it worked out that way. When a person feels the feelings of wanting to do good for another, that feeling itself is not selfish.

> the feelings of wanting to do good for another

That feeling comes out of finally getting a reward after a reward-motivated behavior.

No the feeling may have been evolutionarily conserved because it had that benefit. But that doesn’t mean that the feeling is driven by some kind of idea of a trade. The feeling can be pure, the future benefits a side effect, that side effect being what causes it to be retained evolutionary.

And helping the group

Which group? My group, my people? Isn't that what divides the society?

Groups which consider you a member.

This may include say a dog that considers me part of it's group but not a wold looking to eat me. Large groups are so recent in evolutionary terms as to be irrelevant. Nations and companies etc may be exploiting traits benifitial in much smaller group sizes.

Remember cost benifit is non linear, which is why trade for example happens. I might spend more resources than I receive while benefiting more than it costs me.

PS: The article is talking about different degrees of publicity, not nessisarily true anonymity.

Once a species starts to cooperate for mutual benefit, there does not need to be even a subconscious motive. One survives by taking care of oneself. Your genes survive by taking care of your offspring, which may mean helping your family, tribe, town, country, whatever group you are a part of that provides mutual protection or other benefit.

Bees cooperate in the hive due to instinct. I doubt many people would attribute their behavior to secret narcissistic desires seeking approval from other bees.

Altruism can exist and even be selected for without psychological motives. That said, there are plenty of people who do such things to send signals deliberately.

There's also the covert contract, which is essentially the belief that by being a "good" person the world will repay you in some way (or overlook your flaws). You can actually satisfy this psychological need by making truly anonymous gestures that are never revealed to anyone.

Beware of people who are always looking for hidden motives, they may just be projecting. ;-) And so might I.

> Do you believe in true altruism? If so, how do you think it arose in the human population?

I was going to constuct an argument of how altruism propels societies forward, even benefiting the "weakened" altruistic individuals among it.

But the more important point is that evolution not always finding a global maximum. Some traits that are beneficial, such as empathy, might have weird side effects that nature didn't yet bother to eliminate.

Of course there’s something in it for me when I give: I want to live in a better world.

And if it’s not noticeably better, I feel good because I know I tried. A few billion people doing this and we’ll make a lot of progress.

Evolution endowed us with faculties. We have a lot of flexibility in how we deploy them. Go read Yudkowsky’s Adaptation Executors Not Fitness Maximizers for a somewhat related thesis.

That's a good article, and relevant. Link:


Some of the terms to explore include "group selection" and "multilevel selection" if you are interested in models where altruism could create an evolutionary advantage.

Here's a toy model: self-replicating automatons with no consequence for murder, some automatons murder a percentage of their neighbors' offspring each turn, others do not murder, otherwise they all have the same fertility. Randomly partition the population into two separated groups for a hundred turns, where the two groups have a different incidences of the murdering gene. After the hundred turns, re-combine the two populations, then randomly partition then again.

The murderers will have more surviving offspring within the group, but the group with fewer murderers will grow faster and contribute more genes to the re-combined population. Outcomes are going to depend on specific numbers, and you could make extinction of murderers or extinction of non-murderers more statistically likely.

No, it doesn’t. A trait that is not deleterious to reproduction will not be naturally selected against.

IIRC, altruism doesn't advantage individual survival, but it does advantage group survival. Recent studies suggest altruism can allow genes to proliferate by preserving the ability of relatives to thrive and propagate, even if you, yourself, don't.

In their game theory recreations, there are receivers and senders, but did they account for bystanders/third parties?

Danson’s donation is only anonymous to people who might walk into the area, but to anyone that truly matters - to Danson, at least - the donation is not anonymous. Perhaps there is a third dimension here that is being missed?

Some donations are tax deductible. Many donors will just use money they would initially use for taxes.

That's probably why retired billionaires become philanthropists.

That isn't how tax deductions work. Even very tax efficient giving will not save you $1.00 of taxes when you give $1.00!

But if someone donates you money, and your foundation donates that money, you can offset that.

This is probably not the last idea from curb your enthusiasm to eventually be supported in research.

This is just a theory... A game theory.

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