Monday, May 10, 2010

Are you rational?

Chris Dillow points to a fascinating piece of research:

In ancient times, sacrifices were at the centre of many religions. The Greeks and Romans offered their gods food and animals. The Aztecs and Mayans sacrificed humans, and Abraham was prepared to kill his own son. All were attempts to placate potentially angry gods and to win fertility, good harvests or luck in battle.

Today, we know this is just irrational babble. We’d never do anything so stupid, would we?
Oh, yes we would, as this paper by Paul Frijters and Juan Baron shows. They got a group of Australian students to play a series of public goods games, with a quirk. After each round of the ordinary game, subjects were told that their pay-offs would depend upon an unknown rule set by “Theoi”, and they were asked to choose to make a sacrifice (or not) of the money they’d made in the game to Theoi before playing the game again.

The subjects made large sacrifices. This is despite the fact that Theoi did not exist, and the pay-off was just random.

The interesting thing is that the subjects *never* figured this out and carried on making sacrifices for as long as they played.

Are you rational?

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