Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Power of Greed

When it comes to human nature, I’m not an optimist. I don’t expect people to rise up and act in the best interest of all of us. In fact, quite the opposite. I think most people are really quite selfish. Everyone wants more of something. More wealth, more love, more respect, more fun, more control, more power, more freedom, more satisfaction. And if I’m being really cynical, even extreme acts of charity are motivated either by how they make us feel better about ourselves or our place in the afterlife.

In real life, such selfishness is held in check by our relationships with people. If I’m too selfish, my wife won’t love me and my friends won’t like me. If I’m so selfish that I steal or rob from others, society won’t like me and put me in jail. I’m taught that such selfishness is wrong and has serious costs. I’ll lose respect, love, freedom and possibly even wealth.

In fairness, selfish greed is hardly the only motivator. Love, Fear, Hate, Greed, Envy and I’m sure a dozen other primal forces all war against each other to make up how we perceive the world and make decisions. Some, like Love and Fear, can be more powerful than Greed.

Even here however, it’s still about self interest and need. We fear things because something will be taken away. We love something because we place it’s worth above everything else. We envy because someone has something better than yours. Even hate has root causes in self interest. You hate because it causes pain, is less fun, or maybe it just takes away respect, love, freedom or power.

Not a moral judgment
I want to be clear that I’m not making any moral judgments. I am merely pointing out that self interest is the root motivator for why anyone does anything. Even a martyr who makes the ultimate self sacrifice of giving their life does so because they can’t accept the alternative. Self interest, at the most base level, is the motivator for everything.

In fact, self interest is not a bad thing. It’s a very necessary thing. It’s what makes us care. It’s why we feed ourselves. It’s why we work. It’s literally why we do anything – good or bad.

This entry isn’t about right and wrong. It’s about why people act. To understand why people act, you must first accept that the root cause is self interest. This is why I’m not an optimist about human nature. Given all possible options, a rational person will always choose the option which best serves their self-interest.

No exceptions.

That’s not to say the best decision in terms of self-interest is always the most immoral choice. If someone strongly believes an act is immoral, then acting that way may not be in their best self interest. For that person, the most self-serving act might be the more moral one. An environmentalist isn’t going to suddenly start littering because it’s convenient. In their mind, the cost (pollution) is too high.

In other words, each individual’s own sense of morality is a factor in deciding what best serves them. An immoral person, in this sense, can act in a self-serving way that is counter to the morals of society. Whereas, a moral person would find it was contrary to their self-interest to compromise their ethics.

Driving philosophy about MMOs
I wanted to articulate this philosophy of self-interest because, for me, it’s a huge part of how I form my opinion on lots of MMO related topics. If I come across as cynical, this philosophy is the reason.

I don’t believe people are altruistic. I think even when they behave in ways that others think are altruistic, they did it because it was the best choice for them.

It’s why I’ll never support the Microtransaction model. From a self-interest standpoint, the best game design for the Developer is that which pays them the most amount of money. There are factors there, like not pissing off the user base with absurd pricing, but ultimately the best design is that which encourages players to spend the most money.

It’s why I don’t hold Players accountable for anything and hold Developers accountable for everything. Human nature tells us that Players will take every self-serving advantage they can. It is therefore, in my opinion, the responsibility of the Developer to create the boundaries (through game design) that keep people in check. If people start acting in a way that is unintended, the blame lies with the Developer – not the Players who should be EXPECTED to act in very selfish ways.

It’s why I believe a free market works, but also why I believe a free market needs some regulation. Self interest drives competition (which is good), but self interest without regulation can be abusive to consumers. Monopoly and price-fixing being the most obvious real-world examples. For MMOs, at one spectrum, I believe that social gaming (i.e. Facebook) is going to improve through competition. At the other spectrum, I think DRM and applications of Copyright law to enforce a Terms of Service contract are bad things for consumers.

It also explains the Intenet Dickwad theory (Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Dickwad). The critical component of the IDT is anonymity. By being anonymous, you are insulated from the relationships that act as a check-and-balance against extremely selfish acts.

9 comments:

carton said...

I disagree with your assertion that self-interest is the only motivator. Empathy, which is a raw emotion and not a conscious choice, is also a strong motivator.

People often empathize with others and so are motivated to treat them the way they would like to be treated if their positions were reversed, even if they have no reason to think that will happen (positions being reversed that is).

Say you're driving down a country road with few other cars around and you see someone with a flat trying to wave down some help. You'd be lying to yourself if you didn't admit that that situation didn't evoke in you some emotional, subconscious desire to help, which has nothing to do with a desire for that person to like you more.

Now, most (who study the subject) believe that that reason empathy evolved as an emotion is because, when your species is fighting to survive in a world governed by natural selection, we need a mechanism (i.e. an emotion) to guide our behaviour in situations where the needs of the group outweigh the needs of the individual. And those situations happen all the time in nature.

However, I don't believe that the origin of the emotion would be sufficient basis to conclude that it is universally an extension of self-interest in modern contexts. Especially in the specific context of MMO environments. Certainly many behaviours in an MMO would be based on self interest, but sometimes people will just choose to follow their instinctual drive to empathize without worrying about getting anything in return.

Dagda said...

I'd say there are definitely some exceptions to self-interest being the root of all motivations- particularly our ability to sublimate urges as an exercise of free will, as well as the way natural selection can lead to the impulse to sacrifice yourself for the good of your species.

However, overall I'm in agreement. The way I'd put it is that developers need to hold *themselves* accountable for everything and the players for nothing. If you're an admin, on the other hand. . .

Logan said...

in the context of online games, Sid is absolutely right....

in the real world i'd estimate that 98% of the time we are follow our own self interest... in games i'd say it's closer to 99.9% of the time.

so yes there are rare exceptions in real life, but those exceptions are even more rare in gaming... so the assertion that developers should be held accountable and assume that their players are always going to follow their own self interest is perfectly legitimate.

i think the 2 posters above are trying to split hairs... they make good points, but in the context of online gaming i think sid has it exactly right.

sid67 said...

Empathy, which is a raw emotion and not a conscious choice, is also a strong motivator.

Ah.. But why do we act on empathy? Why do we stop and help?

Because it makes us feel better. Because to NOT stop would be counter to our morals and the associated guilt is worse than the alternative of being late.

We may be reacting to an emotion, but we are still acting in accordance with our self interest. That self interest just doesn't have a universally applicable description to everyone. For some, the alternative to not helping when help is needed is the worse outcome.

Scott said...

Sid's right on the money. Altruism is a myth. Humans are naturally selfish; we do things only for our own benefit. On the surface, some people may appear altruistic, helpful, selfless, etc. but when you get right down to it they do that because it makes *them* feel good. Ergo, they are selfless for selfish reasons and therefore not truly selfless at all. [Note: this does not downplay the value of the much-needed help that is provided, however.]

Online this gets ramped up by the IDT, as Sid also noted. The anonymity of it all pushes people over the top and true colors are displayed for all to see. In MMO's we only group if there is a tangible benefit to us as individuals; be it XP, loot, or lastly (and it *is* the last reason for the vast majority), that feeling of camaraderie.

carton said...

Ah.. But why do we act on empathy? Why do we stop and help?

Because it makes us feel better.


Stretching the definition of self-interest so thin makes the phrase completely meaningless.

Emotions are distinct motivators and whenever we make a decision we are comparing different motivators; empathy encourages one course of action, anger another, self-interest another, and we evaluate those motivators and make a decision. Different people will weight those motivators differently in different contexts (i.e. "feel differently"). Declaring that all motivation is self-interest simply because we make the decision that makes us "feel better" is a useless definition of self-interest. What is really important is how we weigh those motivators and why; declaring everything self-interest is missing the point.

That doesn't mean I disagree with your evaluation of MMOs. Most MMOs encourage people to weigh self-interest far higher than other motivators. Anonymity is probably a key factor (aka the Internet Dickwad theory), and probably the fact that it is just a game is another factor.

sid67 said...

I'm not stretching anything, simply explaining that ACTIONS are motivated by self-interest.

That doesn't make the emotion any less real.

It's the difference between acting and feeling. Self interest doesn't make you feel Love, Empathy, Hate, or Envy. However, if you choose to act on that emotion, you do so because of self interest.

The reason for that self interest might BE the emotion, but the act itself takes place because it serves you best at that moment.

That's an important distinction because people who feel the emotion, may not always act.

Therefore, there must be something ELSE besides the emotion that assists you in making the decision to act (or not act). That's self interest.

carton said...

The reason for that self interest might BE the emotion, but the act itself takes place because it serves you best at that moment.

And how do you decide what serves you best at the moment? My argument, concisely put, is that making that decision involves the internal (often subconscious) weighing and comparing of multiple, conflicting motivations. Different people will make different decisions in the same situation. Some who feel empathy strongly may decide one way, while others who are more greedy may choose another way. In the same situation.

There is not always a fixed, external, definition of what is in a person's self-interest. Everybody decides for themselves. You may chose to help the person with the flat tire because you want to do a good deed and someone else may choose to ignore them because they fear getting robbed.

How we evaluate the importance or weight of those conflicting motivations is certainly influenced by external factors, but the final decision is still an internal choice that we all make for ourselves.

Mig said...

Welcome to Objectivism Sid. Ayn Rand says Hi.