Getting what you want may not be as straightforward as it seems, writes Raj Persaud

The basic assumption made by those who run the country and those who advise them is that we do what we do to make money. This makes sense at some level as money is something you can use to exchange for many desirable things, such as increased control over your life and more freedom.

However, recent psychology experiments have begun to cast doubt on this assumption, which lies at the very foundations of our economy.

These experiments invite subjects to participate in the 'ultimatum' game, which is a way of exploring and measuring co-operation between two people.

The game is played between a 'proposer' and a 'responder'. The proposer is given by the experimenter a sum of money to share with the responder. The proposer is the person who must suggest a way of dividing the funds and the responder can decide to accept the offer or not.

The key twist in the game is that if the responder accepts the offer made by the proposer, then the two are allowed to split the money accordingly and keep the bounty.

However, if the responder rejects the offer made by the proposer, then neither party gets any cash.

Theoretically, since the responder was given no money in the first place, it would be logical for them to accept any offer.

Accepting£5 would still make them£5 better off. Accepting a low offer is rational since the alternative is no money at all.

Yet the astonishing result is that offers below 20 per cent are usually rejected by responders, even when this is a substantial amount.

The other intriguing finding is that offers by proposers tend to be near the 50 per cent mark - so many are making much more generous offers than they need to.

What is going on? The answer is important because these findings run counter to current wisdom that our behaviour is motivated by and largely accounted for by self-interested attitudes.

Getting ahead

A relatively new theory proposed by Dr Terence Burnham, an economist at Harvard who has published a novel take on the experiments, is that the experiment demonstrates we are quite willing to suffer a personal loss if that stops someone else getting ahead - particularly if it looks like they are doing better than us.

In other words, it is not that we seek money - we seek to have more money relative to others. So if everyone else does better than us - even if we have more as well - we end up more upset than if we had not gained at all.

It is this relativity of success that Dr Burnham’s work emphasises.Dr Burnham came to this conclusion because his twist on the ultimatum game experiments was to obtain saliva samples from the participants to investigate whether the testosterone levels of the male players affected their strategy.

The results, as described in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society where the study was published, are quite startling. Responders who rejected a low offer had an average testosterone level more than 50 per cent higher than the average of those who accepted. Five of the seven men with the highest testosterone levels in the study rejected a $5 ultimate offer from a starting stake of $50, but only one of the 19 others made the same decision.

High testosterone in men is associated with greater competitiveness, risk-taking and a drive for social dominance. Those who win at games appear to have consistently higher testosterone than losers. It would appear that those who are keenest to win at social comparison are most likely to reject low derisory offers – they in particular cannot stand others getting on and moving past them even if they are benefiting as well.

Dr Burnham's results ask a stark question about the whole point of money - which is in fact to produce a sense of social superiority. Money only has meaning in terms of a social universe because what we really want is relative rather than absolute prosperity. We would actually much prefer to be absolutely poorer if at the same time we became the richest people (in comparison to others) in the village or on the desert island.

There is no point in being a multi-millionaire on a desert island if no-one knows about it, and similarly there is little benefit in being a multi-millionaire if everyone else is one as well.

Symmetry and aggression

But there are other interpretations of this kind of ultimatum game result, for exampleDarine Zaatari and Robert Trivers from theCenter for Human Evolutionary Studies at Rutgers University in the US found that more physically symmetrical men are also more likely to make small initial offers (and, in turn, reject relatively larger ones).

Psychologists have found that how symmetrical your body and face are appears to be a profound measure of not just physical attractiveness but also your body’s ability to cope with a wide range of environmental stressors during development, ie resistance to parasites, immunological strength, ability to escape predators, speed, strength, and mental acuity.

Zaatari and Trivers argue that this superior genetic quality as displayed by those with more body symmetry increases their ability to gain access to resources without co-operation, via physical aggression, for example.

Zaatari and Trivers point out previous research confirms that symmetrical men are more likely to be aggressive and to start and participate in fights, and have a high opinion of their ability to win when it comes to violence. This bias makes sense if their physical symmetry is a measure of general physical and genetic fitness. Now the interesting thing about aggression as a strategy is that it could be said to be the negotiating opposite of co-operation.

Zaatari and Trivers contend that aggression permits the seizing of another’s resources without having to bother offering any co-operative benefit in return. Weaker men are more likely therefore to seek to try a co-operative strategy as they have most to lose from a confrontational one.

Sure enough, Zaatari and Trivers found more asymmetrical men were more likely to make more generous offers in ultimatum games, supposedly to induce a more co-operative relationship with the other party. Symmetrical males made significantly lower offers than asymmetrical ones. For the stronger man – why bother to offer to co-operate when you can take aggressively anyway?

Sometimes players may adopt an aggressive strategy to create an intimidating impression – we may readily accept a low offer if we feel the alternative is having our heads bitten off. How much of the low offer strategy is a bluff, though, as opposed to being an iron fist in a velvet glove?

Dominance in the NHS

The relevance of this to NHS management is that often when money is not at stake – NHS workers are not going to make more or less money for themselves as a result of managerial decisions – then other issues come to dominate because social comparison and dominance are still at stake.

It may be that managers could go a long way to securing changes they want from staff by ensuring social comparison and respect are dealt with outside of the issue causing contention. It may be staff resistance to change stems from a sense of not doing as well compared to others elsewhere in the system or even outside of the NHS.

Any manager keen to drive through difficult changes needs to directly or indirectly address the issue of who the staff are comparing themselves with, and what are the psychological consequences of such a comparison.

In the current, often fraught, managerial climate of the NHS, staff often feel deprived of respect and this is merely storing up trouble for when the ultimatum game comes to be played, as surely it will be with all of us at sometime.