What is the evolutionary reason for hypocrisy

Our rational hypocrisy - why we think electric cars are great but don't buy one ourselves

Man puts his own interests above the interests of the community, at least in Western countries. For example, we recognize flies as harmful, but turn a blind eye to our own journey. How do economics and neuroscience explain this behavior?

There is often a gap between words and deeds of people. In a survey by the chip manufacturer Infineon and the data service provider Statista, two thirds of those surveyed this year said they could imagine buying an electric car. But last year e-cars and vehicles with hybrid drives only had a 6% share of around 3.4 million new registrations in Germany. The situation is similar with renewable energies. Around 93% of Germans support their increased expansion. But woe betide you if the wind turbine is too close to your home or if the power line is affecting your surroundings - then a citizens' initiative is quickly set up or you can take legal action. Similar behavior patterns can be seen with many topics, such as individual air travel or the expansion of the rail network to expand CO2- poor long-distance transport. Why is that?

«Defect» as the dominant strategy

People have difficulty reconciling individual and collective rationality. This leads, as it were, to rational hypocrisy; Economists then speak of free rider behavior. When it comes to switching to electromobility to protect the environment, it is, from a collective point of view, rational to switch to more climate-friendly technologies as quickly as possible, for example the electric car. On the other hand, driving cars with gasoline or diesel engines is individually rational. These are cheaper and still offer numerous advantages compared to electric and hybrid vehicles, such as a longer range and an easily assessable resale value. Such conflict situations correspond in economics to the classic prisoner's dilemma, the best-known game of game theory, in which, while making a decision under uncertainty, you have the choice between “defective” (buying gasoline / diesel) or “cooperating” (buying an electric car ) in order to avoid external effects (climate damage).

Of course, in the end all social actors would be in the best position if they cooperated and thus behaved collectively and rationally. But if you make a personal defect while the others are cooperating, you can realize small advantages for yourself: You drive a cheaper car, and thanks to everyone else, the air is still cleaner. Conversely, you have small individual disadvantages if you cooperate yourself, but the others take advantage of you, for example by driving a cheap gasoline engine while you buy an expensive electric car yourself. In the prisoner's dilemma, defecting is even a “dominant strategy”, since it is the strategy that the player uses best, regardless of which strategy the opponents adopt. However, if everyone fails, everyone is in a worse position than if they had cooperated.

Marginal costs versus marginal benefits

The prisoner's dilemma is about the optimal behavior in a situation in which the result depends not only on one's own actions and, if necessary, on an unsafe environment, but also on the counter-reactions of others. A free rider is then in the economic sense a player who deviates from a cooperative strategy when his marginal costs are lower than his marginal utility. The game can be understood as a fundamental model for the emergence of negative external effects, in which it is individually rational for each person not to cooperate - regardless of how others behave.

What is true on a small scale for private individuals also applies on a large scale to entire countries. Climate protection is a classic public good and renouncing climate protection policy measures is the dominant strategy, a report by the German Ifo Institute said years ago. Free rider behavior is also the reason why the costs cannot be borne by the users and ultimately the public good (climate protection) is not provided, although it would be beneficial for all parties involved. Ultimately, public goods can primarily be made available or at least organized by a central institution which, for example, can collect the necessary fees from the beneficiaries of the public good. A global institution that could force individual countries to take climate protection measures - as is the case with foreign trade with punitive tariffs imposed by the WTO - does not exist when it comes to environmental protection.

Overlapping of the neural networks

According to Joachim Bauer, a neuroscientist and specialist who previously taught at the University of Freiburg im Breisgau and now in Berlin, the different modes of rationality from the perspective of social neuroscience have to do with the fact that people combine both, an individual and a collective identity. The social neurosciences deal with the communicative properties of the brain, i.e. with the parts that make people a social being. Typically, people are not aware of the two identities, but use the I parts and the we parts implicitly, says Bauer in an interview.

It was only a few years ago that scientists discovered that the neural networks that coordinate the individual I and the collective I (i.e. the we) overlap. The extent of the overlap depends on the cultural socialization. People who grew up in communal cultures, for example in Asian or Arab countries, show a higher degree of overlap between neural I and we networks than Western Europeans and North Americans. Cultural socialization - and not genetics, for example - leave a fingerprint in the brain, so to speak. By nature the human being is laid out as a community, in the social neurosciences one speaks of the human brain as “social brain”. Individualism is an evolutionarily late development. Modern man is therefore a being with both, namely both a community-oriented and an individualistic identity.

"Hedonic renunciation" as a solution

Bauer propagates what he calls "hedonic renunciation". More consumption does not automatically bring more happiness. Instead, it can be a pleasure to live ecologically, says the author of several books (including "How we become who we are - The emergence of the human self through resonance"). Anything that is grim, instructive, aggressive and in a bad mood will provoke defensive reactions and conflicts. The neuroscientist relies above all on people's willingness to change voluntarily, which results from findings on the basis of credible, scientifically proven information. Regulations and prohibitions should only form a framework that requires the minimum of ecological behavior. In any case, a strengthening of collective versus individual rationality is needed in the long term. The state should create incentives for such a development.

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