‘[A] primate group is an implicit social contract (it is a collective solution of the problem of predation)’, Robin Dunbar writes in his recent book Human Evolution and continues, ‘social contracts are always susceptible to being broken by freeriders – those who take the benefits of the contract but don’t pay the cost, thereby benefiting doubly at everyone else’s expense.’ He concludes this thought with: ‘individuals who exploit fellow group members impose a burden that these eventually become unwilling to bear.’
Sometimes there is nothing that we like more than being a freerider, but in general we don’t like freeriders at all. There is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in everyone of us. Sometimes we justify this robbed piece of cake or sip of milk by saying it is an exception, but if we are on the other side we feel betrayed. In fact, we dislike free riding so much that human societies came up with a huge collection of socially unaccepted behaviours and attitudes.
The oldest written version might be the Ten Commandments, don’t kill, don’t lie and so on. Human societies are so successful (remember, I see this as a biologist) because humans cooperate so much. Cooperation, however, can only efficiently work when cheating is reduced to a minimum. The more complex interactions become the more possibilities to cheat emerge and thus the more rules we write down and accept to keep cooperation viable. Say for example collaborations in science (European Space Agency), politics (European Union), and care (WHO), or international companies (Airbus). But also think about it more locally, like volunteering for your community, investing time and energy into the society you’re a member of.
Cooperation can only work if we accept one another (at least temporarily) to share resources. We do not constantly kill each other because we can achieve more when we work together. We do not fight each other all the time (I’m currently sitting in a train to London with cheerful football fans, families and other people and so far – no casualties) because we believe in and rely on the social rules and norms we were raised with. You could save money and buy a smartphone or you can pickpocket it. Yet, we don’t like to get robbed, because stealing is socially unaccepted, and thus might exclude us from the cooperative community, which provides us with profound benefits.
How you behave in a certain society, what you do or contribute, depends on how likely it is to encounter a freerider and how the society deals with freeriding. And this brings me back to my earlier post Why are humans so nosy? In that post I concluded that we are nosy because there is the potential that we learn from other people’s mistakes. With the above paragraphs I hope I can convince you to also make the point: we are nosy because we want to know: how does my society deal with freeriders, and therefore: what can I do in this society (e.g. don’t go out at night, or wear expensive gadgets), what can I say (free speech?), where can I go (are there places that are less save than others? and more along this line.
Additional to my earlier post I claim here that we are also nosy to gather information on how to be a successful member of a society.
Dunbar, Robin. Human Evolution. Penguin Group, 2014, p. 38