Nav: Home

A wolf in sheep's clothing: Your boss, the friendly blackmailer

October 10, 2016

What do profit-driven bosses do if they are not satisfied with an employee's conduct? They use their strategic advantage to blackmail their subordinates: "If you don't want to do the job, I'm sure we'll find somebody else who does". Together with researchers from Harvard University and the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST Austria), researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön have found that asymmetrical power encourages extortionate behaviour. Both in a model and an experimental setup, such 'blackmailing' strategies proved successful for the extortionists. An especially surprising finding was that subordinates were in fact better off if they played along in the unfair game. However, extortionists shouldn't be too obviously selfish; they are only successful if they maintain a well-measured degree of friendliness.

Nearly one in two people will take advantage of others if the opportunity arises: that is the sobering conclusion of a study recently published by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology. The scientists asked 160 students to take part in the so-called 'prisoner's dilemma' game where two players choose, over several rounds, if they will cooperate with each other or not to receive a cash payoff. In this scenario, cooperation only pays off if the respective opponent also cooperated.

This means that particularly Machiavellian players can lull their opponents into a false sense of security by initially cooperating, only to unexpectedly withhold cooperation in the next round. In this case, the selfish player receives an especially large payoff, whereas their opponent is left empty-handed. Such strategies, however, are only successful in the short term. Ultimately, extortionate players often emerge as losers, because their opponents tend to stop cooperating with them altogether.

Not playing along gets you fired

In this study, however, the researchers changed the rules of the game: In their experiment, one of the players had the opportunity to swap their opponent if they were not satisfied with the latter's cooperative behaviour. The swapped player was then replaced by a previously inactive player and was suspended from the game for several rounds. "This is the equivalent of a boss firing and replacing an employee," explains Christian Hilbe of IST Austria.

Nearly half the players who were given this opportunity took advantage of the asymmetrical power structure to force their opponents to cooperate - without being similarly cooperative themselves. In this way, they achieved significantly better payoffs than the players in a control group who were not allowed to replace their opponents.

It was only possible for the extortionists to be so successful because their opponents played along in this unfair game. In fact, it proved to be more advantageous for the co-players to allow themselves to be frequently exploited than to withhold cooperation completely. Players who refused to cooperate with the extortionists were permanently sent to the 'unemployed' replacement bench, and went home with a small payoff in the end.

Interviews with the participants after the experiment showed that many players had understood their situation quite well. Most had realized quickly that they were powerless against the strategic advantage of their opponents and were only able to reap the most benefits for themselves if they actually cooperated ? even if their opponents repeatedly took advantage of them. The privileged players were also often aware of the situation and the best strategy.

Blackmailing requires some skill

In addition to those players who deliberately decided in favour or against 'blackmailing' behaviour, there were also those who were simply too obviously selfish in their extortionate attempts. The strategy works only if an extortionist sometimes cooperates with an opponent. "A heavy-handed boss who always solely relies on exploitation is not successful," says Manfred Milinski, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology. "Without occasional cooperation, the system doesn't work. It is therefore those people who appear to be friendly on the surface we maybe should be most wary of." The researcher suspects that extortionate behaviour is much more common than previously believed - especially, but not exclusively, when a power imbalance exists, such as between a boss and an employee.
-end-
Original publication: Christian Hilbe, Kristin Hagel, Manfred Milinski
Asymmetric power boosts extortion in an economic experiment.
PLOS ONE; 4 October, 2016
Open Access article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0163867

Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

Related Evolutionary Biology Articles:

How evolutionary miniaturization in insects influences their organs
Scientists from the Faculty of Biology of the Lomonosov Moscow State University have studied out, how organs of microinsects change their sizes in the process of miniaturization -- reduction in sizes of incest bodies in the process of evolution.
A new tool to decipher evolutionary biology
A new bioinformatics tool to compare genome data has been developed by teams from the Max F.
Cornell evolutionary biology professor explains how to 'walk the Tree of Life'
Harry Greene, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornel University, and Cissy Ballen of the University of Minnesota have just published a paper in PLOS Biology, 'Walking and Talking the Tree of Life: Why and How to Teach About Biodiversity,' discussing why the evolutionary TOL approach to biodiversity is best, to what extent the traditional taxonomy is still used and how to teach TOL using an active learning approach.
Parasitic fish offer evolutionary insights
Lamprey show that vertebrates once might have relied on a different mechanism for developing neurons in the gut.
Researchers cast into doubt a tenet of the dominant evolutionary biology model
A team of Université Laval researchers has cast into doubt a tenet of evolutionary biology according to which organisms with more than one copy of the same gene in their genome are more resilient to genetic perturbations.
Complex bacterium writes new evolutionary story
A University of Queensland-led international study has discovered a new type of bacterial structure which has previously only been seen in more complex cells.
Stabilizing evolutionary forces keep ants strong
Researchers are finding evidence of natural selection that maintains the status quo among ant populations.
'Bickering' flies make evolutionary point
A Rice University scientist manipulates fruit fly populations to show that individual flies are not merely subject to their social environments, but choose and create them through their interactions.
Autism and human evolutionary success
A subtle change occurred in our evolutionary history 100,000 years ago which allowed people who thought and behaved differently -- such as individuals with autism -- to be integrated into society, academics from the University of York have concluded.
Fast driver spotted on evolutionary tracks
A previously unrecognized strategy that living things use to rapidly diversify and evolve has now been uncovered.

Related Evolutionary Biology Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Setbacks
Failure can feel lonely and final. But can we learn from failure, even reframe it, to feel more like a temporary setback? This hour, TED speakers on changing a crushing defeat into a stepping stone. Guests include entrepreneur Leticia Gasca, psychology professor Alison Ledgerwood, astronomer Phil Plait, former professional athlete Charly Haversat, and UPS training manager Jon Bowers.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#524 The Human Network
What does a network of humans look like and how does it work? How does information spread? How do decisions and opinions spread? What gets distorted as it moves through the network and why? This week we dig into the ins and outs of human networks with Matthew Jackson, Professor of Economics at Stanford University and author of the book "The Human Network: How Your Social Position Determines Your Power, Beliefs, and Behaviours".