This Week in Behavioral #3

Stats on women in the workforce are always disheartening. How much of the differences are simply driven by culture? And before there were police, early human societies cooperated because of fear of… a punitive god. Frank explores.

Women in the Workforce

A great new working paper (that means it has not been judged by peers or published yet) by Francine Blau (a top experts on female labor force participation) tries to understand just how important culture may be in determining things like whether women work, how much they get educated, and when they have children.

In a clever empirical exercise, she compares recent US immigrants' employment rates both to those in their home country and base rates in the US.

For women in the labor force, where you come from matters.

If you come from a progressive, women-work country, you are more likely to work than women born and raised in the US, but if you are born in a country where women are unlikely to work, you are also less likely to work.

This may sound obvious, but it eliminates a lot of other explanations for women's employment statistics, like taste, discrimination, institutions, and so on.

There's simply a norm that is passed on.

Interestingly, the culture passes through even to the second generation, and can be seen in a variety of outcomes like how much education you attain, and when you first bear a child.

The Fear of God = The Evolution of Cooperation

Shifting gears, and rewinding a few thousand (or million?) years, let's talk cooperation.

Evolutionary biologists, anthropologists, and economists have long been intrigued in the role cooperation has played in the development of civilizations.

Imagine two tribes, one of whom hunts together and shares in the spoils, and another who has more of an every-person-for-themselves norm. The former is more likely to survive, right? And some have suggested this may explain how and why humans have evolved to be innately cooperative.

A fun new paper and (easier-to-read write-up) suggests that cooperation may not have been an innate characteristic of early societies, but rather they cooperated out of fear of a punitive god.

The authors had members of contemporary tribal communities play experimental economics games to measure cooperation.

They found that cooperation was indeed predicted not by religiosity, but belief in a punitive god.

Obviously, any such result will be subject to selection bias — different types of people choose a religion that has hell looming overhead, er, underfoot — and those differences could also predict differences in cooperation.

Nonetheless, it is a provocative insight, and interesting suggestive evidence that once upon a time, it could have been that one society emerged over another because they happened to believe in a vengeful god, and that made everyone get along a little bit.

Luckily we now have methods other than fear of a vengeful god to help create cooperation :)

Frank - Luke Coffman

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