Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pay It Forward (2000 - dir. Mimi Leder)

It is not a requirement that movies reviewed on this blog be terribly good ones...only that they illustrate, or are somehow reflective of, evolutionary psychological science. This is an excellent example. Aesthetically, this is one pretty bad movie...

Pay It Forward is as close to a perfect cinematic expression of indirect reciprocity as can be imagined. Briefly, evolutionary research in human altruism identifies kin altruism (altruism among genetically related others), direct reciprocal altruism (altruism among non-relatives of the "tit-for-tat" variety), and indirect reciprocal altruism (altruism among non-relatives but not in the strict "I wash your back, you wash mine" variety). Cognitive adaptations for indirect reciprocal altruistic behavior can evolve if such behaviors enhance the reputation/status of the altruist such that they are held in high esteem by other group members, thus, increasing one's "reputation" through intragroup communication (i.e., gossip). This is why anonymous altruistic acts are relatively rare in human social behavior as non-anonymous acts function as signals that communicate "I am a nice altruistic person and worthy of your solicitous treatment." The observation of such acts can spark a context of "competitive altruism" whereby people that observe these acts of kindness (altruism) will be more likely to engage in them as well. This has been called "upstream reciprocity" in a brilliant recent paper by Nowak and Sigmund (2005) in the journal Nature entitled Evolution of Indirect Reciprocity .

The diagrams in the Nowak & Sigmund paper are eerily similar to the circle and line drawings by the character played by Haley Joel Osment at about the 30 second mark of the film's trailer:

Some of you might be reminded of a recent Liberty Mutual ad that covers the same territory:

It has often been said that it is impossible to account for moral cognition, emotion, intuition, etc. and that, consequently, we must look to religion or some other supernatural source of such sympathies. Evolutionary psychological research is putting the lie to this unfounded assertion and it is wonderfully reflected in this film.

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