The Ultimatum Game is a famous experimental economics game first tried in 1982 by Werner Guth, Rolf Schmittberger, and Bernd Schwarze at the University of Cologne. It has been repeated countless times around the world in many different cultures. The game goes like this: you have two players, a proposer and a responder. The proposer is given 10 dollars and instructed to decide how he/she would like to split the money between the two players. Once the proposer offers the amount to be split, it cannot be changed. The responder has the option to accept or reject the offer. If the responder accepts, both players get to keep the proposed division of the 10 dollars. If the responder refused, both players get nothing.
Neoclassical economists would predict the “rational” outcome of this game as follows: the proposer will keep 9 dollars and offer 1 dollar to the responder; the responder will accept the offer because he/she will be a dollar better off than if he/she refuses. However, in reality, time and again in many different cultures, the proposer typically offers between 4 and 5 dollars (about 50:50 split), which the responder generally accepts. When the proposer offers lower amounts (especially below 20%), the responder typically refuses, costing both the participants any monetary gain. The lower the amount offered, the greater the likelihood of refusal. Since the introduction of this experiment in 1982, it has become one of the most popular of the standard experiment in economics often as a prime show-piece of human “irrational” behavior.
How blind are we to how humanity really works if we think this behavior is irrational? What theory and assumption do we have about human motivation that causes us to think this is irrational? Who is defining the term “rational” anyway? Perhaps it is actually rational for people to be fair. It is rational for people to treat strangers as neighbors as if these relationships really matter, because only through relationships which form community can we survive together and build sustainable communities.
The repeated results of the Ultimatum Game around the world demonstrate that human beings are by nature social and relational. We have the capacity to put ourselves in the other’s experience, and through that common connection, we innately want to be just and fair. Furthermore, we also want to punish those who are selfish and unfair even at the cost of our own gain, in doing so, upholding the value of fairness in relationship.
Our capacity and motivation to be just and compassionate is written in our hearts. It is coded in our social DNA. Like a plumb line – with its metal weight tied at the end -- always pointing directly to the earth's center of gravity, we are created to relate to each other with respect as equals. Furthermore, like a plumb line used to measure the uprightness of a building, we act collectively to uphold this standard sometimes by giving up our own potential gain.
Justice and compassion are the center of gravity of human community. When we stray from it, our community becomes unsustainable. When we stop treating our neighbors as neighbors, when we block ourselves from letting compassion be our guide in our encounters with others, we break this basic commandment written in our hearts and cause our community to eventually become unstable – like a building constructed without referencing a plumb line.
We need to bring out the plumb line to help us re-align our community so that it can be rebuilt with the uprightness of justice and compassion. When we do that, we will notice the injustice caused by greed and selfishness in our communities. We will notice why our community is not bearing fruit. We will discover where the re-circulation of money and resources are blocked. We will find ways to unblock and restore the dynamic sustainist flow of power and resource sharing. We will find ways to redistribute our resources fairly and justly especially amongst the needy, the weak, the poor, and the powerless in our community.
Gather your community for a time to reflect on the Preamble of the Constitution of the United States as the “plumb line” of the community: (This process is designed for communities residing in the United States. If your community is not part of the U.S., replace the text with a key portion of the constitution or mission statement of your own country or community.)
We the People of the United States, in Order to
Reflection Questions for Proper 10 (Year B
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
Eric H. F. Law
For competent leadership in a diverse changing world
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