Is Sharing a Technology? John Hawks Asks the Kids

Is sharing a technology?

These may seem an odd question. But over at John Hawks’s Weblog, of all places, John Hawks is spinning an intriguing argument that the social context supporting behaviors such as sharing and counting plays such a vital role that it amounts to a sort of  technological infrastructure — and its outcome (the behavior) a sort of tool:

Following on after yesterday’s post about hunter-gatherer population structure, I ended with the proposal that cooperation may be a “cognitive technology” in the same way suggested for numbers (“Number as cognitive technology”).

The technology perspective attracts me. It seems a productive way to examine the interaction between innate and extrinsic factors leading to human behaviors. We learn about numbers. Without a development of the brain within a cultural setting with widespread counting and training in number use, people don’t develop the habits of mind that allow rapid comparison of cardinal values. They can still operate on sets of objects and compare their quantities, but they are missing a shorthand, a symbolic shortcut, that comes with learning and practice. Numerical concepts, invented and repeatedly used by human societies, give learners access to this symbolic method of problem-solving.

Cooperation and other prosocial behaviors are similar in some respects. Whether you share with another person or not in a particular concept depends on the rules about sharing that you learned as a member of your society. What’s interesting is that these rules change with age in various ways. So I went looking in the developmental psychology literature for some data about how kids share. My notes here are just a start — and I’m pretty sure they’re rough to read near the end — but I found it interesting how the data seem to illuminate the issue of cooperation in the archaeological record.

He then reviews a fascinating series of papers studying social behavior starting in toddlers and running up through adolescents. As you’d expect, as the kids get older, the social behavior grows in sophistication — and seemingly in its sensitivity not just to morality, but to the sophistication of the argument made for sharing. In a study of sharing between groups of grammar-school-age children, for instance,

the offers made by groups were strongly influenced by the level of moral reasoning employed by group members. When a student who favored a low offer was arguing at a higher level of sophistication, the group was more likely to adopt a low offer. And vice-versa — when the clever student was arguing for a more equitable offer at a higher level, the group was more likely to give more.

As so often with strong, original studies of prosociality, the results can surprise.

Hawks is still shaping this argument (live before our eyes, brave soul), so I’m not quite sure whether he’s developing an extensive analogy or saying a shared cookie is a tool. (I’m not sure he is sure yet, either, and I mean that in a good way) Either way, he’s producing some extremely thought-provoking stuff, and, as always, he lays it out cleanly. I find the idea of looking at social context as a sort of infrastructure and a set of tools, and a behavior as an application of them, intriguing as hell.


Papers reviewed:

  1. Dunfield, Kristen, et al. “Examining the Diversity of Prosocial Behavior: Helping, Sharing, and Comforting in Infancy.” Infancy (2010): no.
  2. Warneken, Felix, and Michael Tomasello. “Altruistic Helping in Human Infants and Young Chimpanzees.” Science. 311 (2006): 1301-1303.
  3. Warneken, Felix, and Michael Tomasello. “Varieties of altruism in children and chimpanzees.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 13 (2009): 397-402.
  4. Olson, K., and E. Spelke. “Foundations of cooperation in young children.”Cognition. 108 (2008): 222-231.
  5. Gummerum, Michaela, et al. “To Give or Not to Give: Children’s and Adolescents’ Sharing and Moral Negotiations in Economic Decision Situations.” Child Development. 79 (2008): 562-576.

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