Could science explain why some people ‘cheat’ in society?

31 Jul 2016



The Panama Papers was a prime example of an act that was not technically illegal but was held to be immoral. This led me to thinking about the very sense of human nature behind this behaviour. Why do people, from all over the world dodge tax in the first place? In other words, why do some people cheat?


I theorise about the links between biology and politics a lot, and recently I have been thinking about how ecology could explain modern human society. It fascinates me because when you delve into the world of theoretical ecology you’re at the foundations of all human society. I like to think of politics as a branch of behavioural ecology. After all, we are animals, and it’s a combination of genetics and environment that shapes our behaviour. In short, I wondered if people ‘cheat’ in society because of ecology. 


Recently I was watching a BBC documentary called ‘Clever Monkeys’ and it featured a group of white-faced capuchins from Costa Rica. Capuchins, and other eusocial animals, are particularly fascinating because they have established a hierarchical system, with the dominant members receiving more food than the subordinates. 


The subordinates may not have the privilege of the best share of food, but they still want it and have learned to acquire it at the expense of the dominants. In order to do this, subordinates initiate a warning call to alert the group to a nearby predator, when in fact there isn’t. Groups are built upon trust, and so the group trusts this capuchin’s judgement and all the individuals immediately scarper so they can survive. When they’re all gone, the subordinate sneaks down and grabs the food. This behaviour ultimately increases their chance of survival- unless they’re caught red-handed.


There are definite parallels to be found in the social dynamic of Capuchin societies and that of post-industrialised human economies. Take Sir Philip Green as an example; what could a man in such a privileged and financially comfortable position possibly gain by liquidating BHS and essentially ‘cheating’ society?


The answer is Competition. There are richer people than him. Based on our current theories of evolution and ecology, competition is inevitable. In a more primitive society, we would fight for every single primary resource: food, territory, and mates. In today’s society, our resource distribution is more complex as our technological progress can evidence. Competition for depleting resources has never been higher in industrial countries- it’s never been more difficult to buy your first home- putting more pressure on individuals to be successful in order to provide the best for their children.


Moreover, as resources become less readily available, the pressure on families will only increase. People want to maintain their current level of wealth and as uncertainty grows, so to will the desire of many to find legal means of hiding or preserving their money from taxmen and irate employees.


Despite William Hamilton proposing that due to kin selection you are naturally inclined to take care of your family to increase the likelihood of your genes being passed on, cheating the system puts people already struggling at a greater disadvantage. If the wealthy fail to pay their fair share of taxes, then the gap between rich and poor will only increase, depriving the less fortunate of the educational opportunities that provides the key for social mobility. Arguments such as trickle down economics, where the wealth will trickle down from the 1% to the poor don’t seem to hold water when it is the 1% that owns 35.6% of all private wealth.


A more liberal and fair society would be one in which everyone does their fair share. For Capuchins, being a cheater increases chances of survival by the use of cunning, but this trait cannot be acceptable in a post-industrial economy. Ecology may explain why people cheat, but this is merely a naturalistic fallacy and not a rulebook to abide by. Condoning the actions of Sir Philip Green isn’t just inaccurate, it isn’t fair. 


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