Oct 5, 2016

Student: “How can we dance when our desks are burning?”

Without doubt one of the largest South African news stories right now is the student protests under the broader “Fees must fall” campaign. These student-led movements have gained sympathy and ire in equal intensity it seems. The protests of 2015, and now of 2016, do this because we feel that they go beyond fees to touch upon issues at the heart of a very unequal South Africa. As a nation we are all asking the deep, important questions about our society and figuring out what we as individuals think about them. That is, most seem to think, a positive, if sometimes uncomfortable, development.

Apart from growing engagement on the big questions, there is, however, another aspect of these protests which is raising ire from blogs to braais and dividing overall opinion on the merit of these protests with a brutal sharpness not seen since Sweeney Todd swung his razor. Specifically, the destruction of University property by protesting students. Because destroy property they certainly have. Libraries, Student Union buildings, desks and more have perished in the flames of protest.

Which is confusing to the observer for the following very straightforward reason: burning University property seems to very directly harm the protesters, who are students at those Universities and, presumably, need those libraries, desks and cars to help them study and: Why on earth do they do this?

It is a good question and we at GMT+ think that it would be worthwhile seeing if Behavioural Economics could help us make sense of this sort of behaviour. Fortunately, we think it can.

The first possible explanation is that it might be a rational way to gain attention. One of the (many) goals of these protests has been to forcefully swing national attention to questions that have long been swept under the carpet. The student protesters felt that they needed to get our attention. However, being students, the large budgets and the architecture to set up a sustained media campaign of sufficient cunning and scope to defeat enough ‘Skip’ ads and remote control channel changes would have incurred costs in days (months) and Rands that was well beyond their capacity.

However, destructive protest grabs headlines, air-time, and Google searches pretty effectively and at, apparently, little initial cost. As a result one might argue that students engaged in arson “above the line” to grab our attention. And no doubt that was part of it. However, burning libraries is by far not the only option in this line – and it is not the least convenient either, you still have to get past security, get a fire going, and then you would want to escape the blaze and (presumably) detection. To get this kind of attention a group just needs to be dramatic and public… and there are lots of options there, options that are much, much less costly (and which have been employed to great effect), such as throwing sewerage on statues, staging sit-ins, and even barricading entrances and exits. Why go to the trouble to destroy University infrastructure too? The puzzle remains.

We think that Behavioural Economics can speak to this and in particular the results of a game that has been studied by Behavioural Economists and played countless times now in economic experiments all over the world: the ultimatum game.

The ultimatum game goes like this. It involves two players, let’s call them the Proposer and the Responder. The Proposer is given a pot of money, say R100, and the Responder is told about this. The Proposer then proposes a distribution of the money between themselves and the Responder. The Proposer can decide to give any amount of money to the Responder, including all of it or nothing at all. Once the Proposer has suggested the distribution, the Responder gets to say whether they accept this distribution or not. If the Responder accepts the distribution then each player walks away with what the Proposer proposed. If the Responder rejects the distribution then both players get nothing and walk away empty-handed. The Proposer gets only one chance to suggest a distribution, the Responder can only accept or reject that distribution. There is (usually) no dialogue between the two players.

Now, standard economic theory (and common sense) says that if you were the Responder in an ultimatum game and the Proposer distributed any amount of cash, that was greater than zero, to you, even the smallest permissible amount, then you should take it – because surely you should prefer even R1 to nothing. That would be the rational thing to do if you were interested in coming out of the experiment better off than when you began it. As the Proposer, you should realise this and suggest a division of the pot that sends the minimum positive amount to the Responder and see you keep the rest – that would maximise your payoff.

As you may have guessed however, things very seldom work out that way in the ultimatum game.

First, an overwhelming majority of Proposers suggest equitable distributions in the range of 40% to 50%. Second, in study after study roughly equitable offers (roughly 40% to 50%) are almost always accepted. However as the size of the offer drops so does the chance that the offer is accepted and low offers (usually around 20% of the pot) are nearly always rejected. Both the tendency of Proposers to make equitable divisions and the tendency of Responders to reject low offers seem to violate conventional economic theory and common sense.

What is going on here? In a society characterised by as starkly an unequal division of resources as South Africa, this is well worth understanding.

In an arresting and widely cited study, several researchers (Sanfey, Rilling, Aronson, Nystrom, & Cohen; 2003) have subjects play the ultimatum game in FMRI units and study their brain activity while they play. As with other studies they find that roughly equitable offers are accepted whereas low (where the offer is roughly 20% or less of the total amount up for division) offers are rejected.

What is interesting is the behaviour of the brain while all of this is going on, specifically the activity of two areas: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). In case you did not know, the DLPFC is associated with rational, goal directed behaviour, like planning how to save for retirement, whereas the ACC is associated with more emotional reactions, like the disgust you feel when you smell rotten meat. What the researchers observe is that the ultimatum game pits the DLPFC against the ACC, the rational against the emotive. When offers are roughly equal, the rational area is at least as active as the emotive area, but when the offer is a low amount the emotive area kicks into overdrive and dominates affairs. Players know that any amount that they get from the game is a bonus and their rational mind tells them to take the cash and go. However, players also experience what amounts to moral disgust when on the receiving end of a selfish offer. This moral disgust is visceral enough to forego cash in order to punish an unfair Proposer.

Burning University property does not seem rational at all; it is self-defeating in a very direct way. However, if protesting students (correctly or incorrectly) view campus capital as a resource which has been unfairly divided and continues to be unfairly divided in favour of some sort of historically entrenched Proposer, a large literature in Behavioural Economics suggests that they’ll happily take the hit to ensure that the better off feel the pain too. In other words, it may not be rational, but it’s certainly expected.

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We know what drives people. We can tell you what’s going on and what to do about it.

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  1. Sanfey, A. G., Rilling, J. K., Aronson, J. A., Nystrom, L. E., & Cohen, J. D. (2003). The neural basis of economic decision-making in the ultimatum game. Science300(5626), 1755-1758.
  2. Chapman, H. A., Kim, D. A., Susskind, J. M., & Anderson, A. K. (2009). In bad taste: Evidence for the oral origins of moral disgust. Science323(5918), 1222-1226.
  3. Gabay, A. S., Radua, J., Kempton, M. J., & Mehta, M. A. (2014). The Ultimatum Game and the brain: A meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews47, 549-558.

Note: Gabay, A. S., Radua, J., Kempton, M. J., & Mehta, M. A. (2014) find this result to be consistent over 11 similar studies and 282 respondents.