As Well as Money Is There A Case For An Altruistic Token?

Alken (Altruistic Token), Justin Marley, Public Domain

Human relationships are central to health and wellbeing. There are many that would argue that one of the core features of well functioning relationships is the concept of social reciprocity or a bit of ‘give and take’. There are many mental illnesses which are characterised by a person having difficulties with social reciprocity. Consider a person who is markedly depressed and because of their illness has stopped engaging in the social activities they would have usually enjoyed. Consider a person with negative symptoms of Schizophrenia who may have withdrawn from social activities. Consider a person with Asperger Syndrome who may be finding it difficult to participate in the to-and-fro of social interactions because of a difficulty in reading social cues. Consider a person with a Dependent Personality Disorder who depends completely on an important other to meet many of their needs and finds it difficult to change the nature of this relationship. For different reasons in all of these hypothetical scenarios there is a difficulty with social reciprocity.

Reciprocity and Evolution

As a species we have evolved over billions of years from single-celled organisms and have in the process kept very good solutions to many common problems posed by the environments we and our ancestors have lived in. One very good solution to many different problems is for the members of a species to work together to meet the challenges of the world. Indeed this is such a good solution that it is seen across the Animal Kingdom from Ants and Bees to Whales and Dolphins. Humans are particularly good at this and are constantly creating new ways of working together (consider Science 2.0 as an example). In evolutionary terms our nearest relatives are other Primates. Our most distant Primate relatives diverged from our lineage approximately 63 million years ago and yet in all that time many of our primate cousins exhibit a concrete method for engaging in social reciprocity – grooming. Below are some examples of this.

Diana Monkeys Grooming

Bonnet Macaques Grooming in Tamil Nadu

Bonobos Grooming

Grooming behaviour is incredibly complex in these groups but it is also a core feature of social behaviour in Primates. Professor Robin Dunbar has even proposed a theory suggesting that in humans we have replaced grooming with laughter, music and language.

Dunbar’s Theory on Grooming, Laughter, Music and Language

Humans however have the ability to symbolise this social reciprocity in a very abstract way and refine it with sophisticated systems.

Money As A Symbolic Measure of Relationships

The history of money is complex and it has many features which are not reducible to broad generalisations. However money has proved useful in many cultures through time across the world. Professor Richard Dawkins talks about memes, thoughts or ideas that survive in our minds because like genes they can be tested for their fitness or ability to survive in our mind. The concept of money therefore is amongst the fittest of memes we have at our disposal judging by its pervasiveness. There are numerous variations on how money works. Take the following example. Robert buys his sandwiches from Sam every weekday. On a typical weekday the dialogue might go something like this

Robert: How much is this sandwich please?

Sam: The sandwich is £1.50

Robert: Here you go (handing him £2)

Sam: Thanks. Here’s your change (handing him 50p)

This type of interaction between Sam and Robert might happen about 200 times a year. The interactions will not be as formal as above and much of the above will be unspoken but there will be an understanding between the two. When Sam receives the money from Robert there is a further understanding that both Sam and Robert will have. That understanding is that whilst Robert gets his sandwich (and 50p), Sam is left with £1.50. Sam (and Robert) expect that Sam can use that £1.50 somewhere else. The money holds value. Sam and Robert will engage in interactions like this many times a day and it is so common that they may not give it a second thought. While this is taking place though they are subject to a powerful biological method of learning – classical conditioning.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is an important way in which we learn lessons about the world. In evolutionary terms it is a mechanism that is outstandingly successful. Classical conditioning is identified in species ranging from Sea Slugs and Lizards to Horses and Humans.  There are many types of classical conditioning but the essence of this learning process is that we start out with very basic hardwired reflexes. When we are presented with food we salivate in anticipation. Classical conditioning allows us to associate that food with something else. When Pavlov first discovered this method he used a bell to signal to dogs that they were going to receive food. The dogs salivated when food was brought but not with bell ringing. When bell ringing happened before the food was presented the dogs would learn to salivate in response to the bell ringing. By associating the bell ringing with food, the dog had learnt to anticipate the arrival of food when the bell was ringing.

Classical Conditioning and Money

With the benefit of this discussion about Classical Conditioning let’s return to the interaction between Robert and Sam. As part of development, children learn about money. They learn that they need money to buy food. In the process they learn that hunger is satisfied by giving money to a person who is selling food. The interaction between people is being associated with money. Robert and Sam will have learnt this in their childhood and many steps beyond with the principle of delayed gratification. Robert and Sam have learnt that if they behave in a certain way repeatedly (in jobs for instance) they will be paid money in the future and they can use this to pay for food when they are hungry. People use other mechanisms as well. We know that we can learn different behaviours by observing the behaviour of others – observational learning. We can also choose to manage our behaviour through reasoning – inhibiting the lessons we have learnt through observation or conditioning and choosing another course of action.

However despite all of this there is a daily rhythm of classical conditioning that occurs through our financial transactions. Unless we consciously try to overcome this we are being conditioned to associate many interactions with other people with the rules associated with the use of money.  Money is trusted as a tool for social exchange as discussed above. Nevertheless through classical conditioning it is possible that money may modify our behaviour in subtle ways. Robert and Sam have learnt that there are tight boundaries on some aspects of their interactions. Due to the complexities of economics Sam may not understand why the price of the sandwich is £1.50 and not £1 for instance. In that case, some aspects of Sam’s interaction with Robert are governed by abstract rules that have been determined by extremely complex assumptions and calculations that in the case of a large organisation may involve teams of people spanning whole continents. Despite all of this Sam and Robert know that for Robert to get his food and satiate his hunger he must give Sam the money and Sam will expect the money.

So the important question in all of this is how much are these ‘money rules’ influencing our behaviour? Do these associations influence some people more than others? What is the relationship between these associations and illness? What happens when these associations interfere significantly with our interactions with others?

The Storming of the Bastille“, Jean-Pierre Houel, 1789, Wikimedia Commons, Photograph of Original Image Where Copyright Has Expired (Death of Author Plus 70 Years)

A solemn crowd gathers outside the Stock Exchange after the crash. 1929, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

2005 New York City Transit Strike, Wikimedia Commons, Uploaded by Chensiyuan, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License

Combination of Photographs of October 2011 Global Protests, Wikimedia Commons, Authors: Roland Zh, Lutz, Crispin Semmens, Justinform, Biella “Gabriella” Coleman, David Shankbone, Combined by Abbad

A Different System – Paying It Forwards

The use of money in society has become extremely sophisticated with complex effects on our behaviours and relationships. However an alternative system has been examined in detail and this system is referred to as ‘Paying it forward‘.  This concept is derived from contract law where a third party benefits from a contractual arrangement between two parties. For instance, instead of buying a present for someone you might donate to a charitable organisation. That is termed ‘Paying it forward’ and was apparently developed by Benjamin Franklin, one of the founders of the United States of America. However the concepts dates back even further to an ancient Greek play ‘Dyskolos‘ written some 2300 years ago which explores issues of sharing wealth with others. The concept was clearly articulated in the film ‘Pay It Forward‘ released in 2000 where a person must do three things for other people which they cannot achieve themselves. The concept has been further explored in other books including ‘Between Planets‘, ‘Magnificent Obsession‘ and ‘Dandelion Wine‘. Modern movements have also been precipitated by this concepts including the ‘Heifer Project’ and ‘Pay It Forward Day‘ where the organisers are hoping to inspire ‘3 million acts of kindness’.

Paying It Forward and Classical Conditioning

If money can act through classical conditioning and may influence our behaviours over the course of our lifespan what effect might ‘Paying It Forward’ have? The question is difficult to answer as many aspects of our relationship occur independently of money. Sharing a simple joke, seeing friends and family, taking a walk along the beach are all examples of the many ways people are able to interact without any need for consideration of financial interactions. However given the success of Capitalism the interactions described above do take place very frequently in most people’s lives and the reader will be able to estimate how many repetitions of such interactions take place in their lives each week. With a ‘Paying It Forward’ interaction a person will not be rewarded directly for their behaviour. The rule ‘If I give you something then you need to give me something back in return’ doesn’t apply. If a person receives food when they are hungry through such an interaction they can learn that money is not always needed to satiate hunger. If such interactions were consistent enough then learning would be mediated through classical conditioning provided there was a conditioned stimulus. Of course we would also learn through the other methods described above but it is the repeated associations between conditioned and unconditioned stimulus that leads to the learning.

Symbolic Representation of Paying It Forward

A simple proposal is to represent the concept of ‘Paying It Forward’ with a symbol. A preliminary example is given at the top of the page. There are three general ways this could be introduced. The first and more practical way to introduce the symbol is through the use of e-mails. So for instance if a person does a favour for someone they could e-mail the symbol to that person and they in turn would know to e-mail that onto the next person if they were using these principles. In comparison with money however, such symbols might reduce in the general circulation as there is no reward for their use.  Nevertheless a willingness to participate in this system would mean that people would rely on reasoning and other methods to overcome the relative lack of positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement however is a strong factor in the establishment of habits and so careful consideration would be needed for how this can be compensated for. The second way to introduce the symbol is through an application that would sum up the total number of tokens that had been received so that a person could keep track of how many acts they should be paying forward. The third way is to produce physical tokens although the virtual tokens may be preferable depending on the environmental impact.

Could Paying It Forward Be Used As An Ancillary System When Interactions Based on The Usual Rules of Money Break Down?

In some of the scenarios above, when money hasn’t solved the needs of a society other behaviours have emerged. Is it possible that a ‘Paying It Forward’ scenario might help societies to manage crises? The use of money comes with a set of unwritten values for behaviour. In the Great Depression, there were certain communities who overcame the difficulties of the Great Depression and it is possible that community values facilitated behaviours that helped to build resilience. However there is perhaps a need for a refinement in the system to meet the immense challenges that communities and societies face and it may function best as an ancillary system.

How Might A Paying It Forward Symbol Help in the Understanding of Illness?

There are some conditions in which people are thought to have a difficult with empathy although even this simple statement is frought with difficulty as definitions of empathy vary and other factors play a role in understanding other people’s minds. Nevertheless in group settings, people are able to judge who is reciprocating in social interactions and this assessment may contribute to social exclusion. If a symbol were used in an experimental setting, an accumulation of such tokens would indicate to a person that they were receiving more favours from the group than were being returned. They may not have been aware of this without such a concrete representation and may with guidance and this type of feedback be able to develop their social interactions within the group.

An index of the site can be found here. The page contains links to all of the articles in the blog in chronological order. Twitter: You can follow ‘The Amazing World of Psychiatry’ Twitter by clicking on this link. Podcast: You can listen to this post on Odiogo by clicking on this link (there may be a small delay between publishing of the blog article and the availability of the podcast). It is available for a limited period. TAWOP Channel: You can follow the TAWOP Channel on YouTube by clicking on this link. Responses: If you have any comments, you can leave them below or alternatively e-mail Disclaimer: The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.

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