Natural Rationality | decision-making in the economy of nature


The logic of investment and the logic of obligation in Maasai culture

In the last post, I reported a study that shows how a single sentence can promote fairness in the Dictaror game. Now another study shows how a single sentence reduces trust and fairness in the Trust Game. In this game, DM1s (Decision-Makers one) decide how much, if any, of a certain amount of money they would like to transfer to DM2s. The transferred money is tripled, and DM2s decide how much, if any, they give to DM1s. People tend to transfer and reciprocate a considerable amount of money, although orthodox game theory predicts that they would not.

Lee Cronk had Kenyan Maa-speaking individuals play the trust game. Half of them where not framed, while the other ones were informed that 'This is an osotua game." Osotua (literally, "umbilical cord") , in Maasai, refers to certain gift-giving relationships:

Osotua relationships are started in many ways, but they usually begin with a request for a gift or favor. Such requests arise from genuine need and are limited to the amount actually needed. Gifts given in response to such requests are given freely (pesho) and from the heart (ltau) but, like the requests, are limited to what is actually needed. Because the economy is based on livestock, many osotua gifts take that form, but virtually any good or service may serve as an osotua gift. Once osotua is established, it is pervasive in the sense that one cannot get away from it. Osotua is also eternal. Once established, it cannot be destroyed, even if individuals who established the relationship die.

So what happened when the trust game was presented as Osotua? Players transferred less money than in the regular, non-framed situation. Also, there is a correlation between the amount that DM1s were given and how much they expected to receive in the unframed, but not in the framed condition. The framing, according to Cronk,

shifts game play away from the logic of investment and towards the mutual obligation of isotuatin to respond to one another's genuine needs, but only with what is genuinely needed.
Hence a simple cue can trigger a complete shift in perspective and alter player's behavior.