For those who don’t know, the ultimatum game goes like this. There are two players, and a sum of money that can be split between them (say $1). The first player gives decides on how this dollar should be divided between the two of them. Given this division the second player decides whether to accept this division or reject it. If the second player accepts they divide the dollar, if the second player rejects the offer they both get nothing.
If both players only value the amount of money they get then the first player will set up the division so they give player two only an infinitesimally small amount. However, when humans play the game we find that they divide the dollar up quite evenly. Furthermore, we find that when people divide the dollar up very unevenly, the offer is rejected, even though that means player two misses out on some money.
When they say that Chimps play a more rational game than humans, they mean that chimps behave in the way closer to what we would expect if the agents involved only valued money. All this really tells us is that humans value concepts like fairness at a higher rate than chimps do. Hardly a surprising result.
However, this does make a good point for economists to take on board. Humans obviously do value fairness,. Part of this is instinct, and part of this is institutional. By institutional, I mean that it is a preference we have developed as a result of the society we live in. Although economists are happy to abstract from ideas like this, when we apply economic theory it is important not to forget about the social norms that people also value.
But more importantly, the social norms that are created through the application of economic ideas may eventually change the preferences of the individuals in society. Fairness is useful as it helps reinforce co-operation in situations where a prisoners dilemma occurs. If analysts introduce policy that undermines fairness, or in some way degrades the social norm of fairness, then the socially optimal co-operative result becomes more difficult to achieve. Even more fundamentally, how does the change in preferences influence the way individuals value things, could the loss of fairness as a social norm leave people feeling more upset ceteris paribus? I think this is what sociologists have been telling economists for a while.
Ultimately, I accept the idea that social norms are important in determining preferences, but academic economists have good reason for not looking at them. Academic economists want to focus on thing they feel that they can objectively measure, so that their work does not become value laden. Defining preferences is not value neutral, and so is steered away from in academic work (except maybe in Evolutionary game theory? Not that I would know 😉 ). However, economists that want to apply their ideas to reality must realise that societies affect on preferences is non-trival. This makes the questions of how a given policy will impact on preferences more difficult.