Monday, 21 August 2017

Superpowers and social incentives

My son has asked the question a few time, of what superpower I would choose to have (if I could choose any). It seems a reasonable (if fantastic) question. In a recent paper in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology (sorry I don't see an ungated version) Ahuti Das-Friebel (of Monk Prayogshala in India) and co-authors provide an answer based on a sample of 572 mainly Indian online respondents:
Of the 302 [quantitative analysis] participants, 94% opted to possess a superpower (n = 285). On average, participants wanted positive powers... significantly more than negative powers...
Only six superpowers were evaluated, made up of three 'positive' powers (healing, invulnerability, and flight) and three 'negative' powers (poison generation, fear inducement, and psychic persuasion). The main part of the research didn't focus on which superpowers the respondents preferred though, but rather how they said they would use those superpowers:
In general, it was found that while most individuals would prefer to hypothetically possess superpowers, their usage would not necessarily be altruistic. Specifically, results from both the quantitative and qualitative analyses showed that majority of the participants would use hypothetical superpowers for personal benefit versus social benefit and social harm. Moreover, both positive and negative powers generated more self-serving purposes than altruistic responses, with a minority indicating using the powers for antisocial purposes. Last, women were more likely to use positive powers for socially beneficial purposes than men, even though men indicated a higher desirability for both positive and negative powers than women.
So, according to this research people say they would most likely use their hypothetical superpowers for personal benefit. But would they? Economists understand incentives, and one could make the case that the incentives for someone who has newly acquired superpowers is to use those superpowers for personal gain - the benefits of using superpowers to benefit oneself are large, and the costs to the individual are probably only small. But purely economic incentives are only one type of incentive. There are also moral incentives (based on what you believe about right and wrong) and social incentives (based on what other people perceive as right and wrong). Moral incentives might be enough to keep many superpower-wielding people in line.

Where economic and moral incentives are not enough, the social incentives to behave well are likely to be very high. A person with superpowers is probably going to be very visible to others, so I imagine it would probably be difficult to hide their actions effectively. A person with superpowers who engages in actions for their own benefit is going to get a very hard time from the general non-super-powered population.

Think about how a lot of people feel about the wealthy right now. Many people believe that the wealthy should be using their wealth for socially beneficial activities, rather than purely for personal gain. Some people strongly believe that the wealth distribution is very unfair. How unfair would the distribution of superpowers be? How would people react to a person with superpowers using those powers for personal gain? It wouldn't be pretty, and even invulnerability wouldn't save the selfish superpower-wielder from the consequences.

Anyway, coming back to the original question at the beginning of this post, my answer to my son has always been qualified by whether lots of other people have superpowers. If lots of other people have superpowers, having a superpower that makes you immune to others' superpowers seems quite valuable (as does being able to replicate or borrow or steal other people's superpowers). It's hard to see that the social incentives would be against using that superpower.

[HT: Marginal Revolution, back in April]

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