A Random Income Game?

Social scientists and psychologists love to have us playing economic games. They usually give us lots of opportunity to look after our own interests. With games like the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ we set ourselves against an individual, but in the ‘Random Income Game,’ RIG, we play in a group although we make the decisions individually.

The RIG has a group who are randomly assigned an income, but the distribution may be varied.  As group members can see what their colleagues are getting, the may opt to even things up. With multiple rounds, group composition changes so a bad reputation doesn’t stick.

Dawes et al have got a group to play the RIG while sticking their heads in the big magnet to get fMRI scans of which parts of their brains are working when they are making the decisions (1,2). The subjects showed an admirable tendency towards an egalitarian distribution of wealth. They also had some questions to answer that were aimed at their thoughts on society and how they would split cash with someone else.

All this allowed the researchers to focus down on the insular cortex as being the seat of egalitarianism. The insular cortex is thought to be where we are self-aware and where we judge levels of pain. But, importantly in the context of this study, it is where our feelings of empathy arise.

As the US presidential campaign starts to get into serious mode we are due to hear a lot about fairness and taxes and one can hope that there will be a lot of insular cortex activity with both the candidates and the voters by November.

  1. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120409164307.htm
  2. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/04/05/1118653109.abstract

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