Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Theory and Psychology of Honor

When talking about Honor there are various concepts that need to be identified: Valuables, Honor, Reputation, Honor Codes, and Honor Systems.

Lets make a rough definition of each of those concepts:
Valuables: It is a set of material possessions and conceptual values that are considered to be valuable for the individual, and an important asset to their survival value. The most common examples of valuables: Land ownership, houses and real-estate, family members, reputation, and livelihood.
Honor: Acts of aggression to anyone who takes or threatens those valuables. Common examples of honor acts include: A house owner who shoots a burglar who broke into his house, a person who revenges the murder of a family member, a husband who kills his wife for sexual infidelity, a person who kills another in self-defense.
Reputation: The knowledge of people that a person would act in a specific manner in response to a specific situation. Examples include: A person having a reputation of accepting bribes when offered one, a person having a reputation of engaging in violent fights when insulted, a person having a reputation for enacting revenge upon anyone who crosses his path.
Honor codes: The set of reputations of specific action tendencies in matters of Honor of a particular individual. Examples include: Action tendency to killing burglars if they break into your house, action tendency to kill a cheating wife, action tendency to protect your family in dangerous situations. To be more elaborate, honor code is not only the action tendency, but it also includes a declaration of those action tendencies. So in the example of killing the cheating wife, honor code is established when the husband lets his wife know beforehand that cheating will result in death, as this is the part where the reputation of action tendencies is created.
Honor system: The collection of honor codes of various individuals and the system that results from the various interactions of the individuals and their honor codes. Those individuals might have common interests, or conflicting interests depending on the specific situations.

Honor and reputation are very important concepts in terms of survival. It is the mechanism that creates penalty for attempting to take or threaten an individual's valuables. An individual's tendency to act aggressively makes him capable of protecting his own, and other people's knowledge of someone's capacity for hostile retaliation acts as proactive measure against being threatened in the first place.

Any serious discussion about Honor must address the issue of reputation. So, first, I will address the topic of reputation.

The theoretical basis of Reputation using Game Theory

Game Theory provides an understanding of the mechanisms through which reputation emerges. Economists, evolution theorists, and evolutionary psychology all use game theory for analytical models in those theories. I will provide few examples to illustrate this point.

Example 1:
First, let's take an example in Economics. This is a popular textbook example, and many people might be familiar with it. In this example, we hypothesize a situation where one company has a monopoly for a particular product or service. Assume that the monopolist has yearly income of 3 million dollars. One company is considering entering the market. At this point, the monopolist has two alternative strategies: Either to fight the entrant, by driving prices very low, at the risk of making no profit for that year. If the monopolist chooses this strategy, the entrant company will suffer losses of 1 million dollars, and will be forced to exit the market. The other strategy is to allow the competitor to enter the market, and sell products at a competitive price, such that the both companies would make 1 million dollars per year.

Monopolist Entrant
Not Enter 3mil$ profit 0$ profit
Enter with Fight 0$ profit 1mil$ loss
Enter without Fight 1mil$ profit 1mil$ profit

One thing the monopolist might do, is to announce to all companies that intend to enter the market that they will fight. Any competitor who actually believes that the monopolist will fight would not enter the market, because they know that the end result will be a net loss of 1 million dollars.

But some competing company might think: "Yes, they say they will fight, but that's just a scare tactic. However, if we actually enter the market, they will not fight us, because they want to create profit, so they will not fight because making one million dollars in profit is better than no profit at all!". So, lets say this company decides to enter the market.

What should the monopolist do? If they decide to fight, in the short-term, they will suffer because they are not making any profits. However, in the consequent years they will still make good profits, better than those they would have if they allowed competition to enter the market.

Another concern is: What if in the next year some other company decided to enter the market, should the monopolist fight them as well? Again, fighting in the short-term seems undesirable. But one thing is left out of the equation, which is reputation. Once the monopolist had enacted the threats they made, it is much less likely that another company will try to enter the market. The monopolist had made an example of that previous company, and anyone who suggests that the monopolist was bluffing will be forced to reconsider. The monopolist is said to have created a reputation of fighting competitors.

Example 2:
The prisoner's dilemma is another example of emergent behavior where reputation plays an important role. The prisoner's dilemma hypothesizes a situation where two suspects are held for interrogation. The police does not have enough evidence to convict them. Both suspects are offered the same deal: If you rat out the other suspect and they stay silent, you will walk out free, and the other suspect will get a five-years sentence. If you stay silent, and the other suspect rats, you will get a five years sentence, and the other suspect will walk out free. If you both rat each other, each of you will get a three-years sentence. If you both stay silent, you will be sentenced for one-year for a minor offense.

Prisoner A silent Prisoner A rat
Prisoner B silent 1 year for both 5 years for B
Prisoner B rat 5 years for A 3 years for both

The trick in this scenario is that both suspects have motive to rat the other person out. Regardless of what the other person does, you get the better part of the deal by being a rat. If the other person was a loyal and remained silent, you will go free by ratting him. If the other person was a rat, you will get a three-years sentence instead of five-years sentence.

However, the dilemma is that when both of them chooses to rat, they will both get three-years sentence, when it would have been better if they both could stick to staying silent, and just serve one-year sentence. The idea here is that by both being self-interested and uncooperative they get the worse part of the deal (3-years), although if they were cooperative and trusting they would have got a better deal (1-year).

So now, if we let reputation enter the picture. If both suspects had a reliable reputation of being cooperative and not rats, each one of them can trust the other person to stay silent. And none of them would rat the other person, because this will break their good reputation, and if a similar occasion arises their bad reputation will get them the bad part of the deal.

Evolution of Honor as a Psychological Mechanism

It is important to understand that evolution is a slow process, it takes ages to develop. And evolution is also a heuristic process, in the sense that it does not provide optimal solutions in minimal time, but rather depends on random occurrences, epiphenomena, indirect solutions to problems. In evolutionary psychology, psychological mechanisms are processes that arise to help solve certain problems that humans faced for prolonged periods of time. However, psychological mechanisms can be indirect solutions to problems. For example, sexual pleasure and sexual desire are epiphenomena that drive individuals to engage in acts that will likely cause them to procreate. So sexual desire is a psychological mechanism using which nature ensures that individuals procreate. Loving your child is a psychological mechanism using which nature ensures that parents look out for their children after they are born. And finally Honor is a psychological mechanism that ensures that individuals fend off for the things that improve their chances of survival.

However, as mentioned earlier, evolution is heuristic. For example, from procreation point of view, a sterile man or woman has no value for sexual desire. But the thing is, when people experience sexual desire, they are not directly thinking of procreation, and that's what it means to call it a psychological mechanism; Procreation is a by-product of sexual desire, but the psychological experience itself is not defined by procreation.

So when we apply what we discussed to the concept of Honor, we see that Honor is a psychological mechanism that solved problems for humans in the past. One problem is parental investment. From a parent's perspective, he or she is investing time and effort to support the immediate family. However, this behavior is usually motivated by a desire to invest in one's own offspring. Your children carry your genes so protecting them has survival value. However, if you were investing time and effort in some child, it is important to be sure that they carry your genes. When it comes to women, this is typically not a problem, because when she gets pregnant the child is without doubt her own. However, when it comes to men, things become less obvious. For this purpose, sexual fidelity becomes valuable. For the most part of human evolution, the technology of DNA tests was not available, and consequently the only way to be sure was to require sexual fidelity.

In this example of sexual infidelity, one question arises: What is the best strategy to handle infidelity? Several answers come to mind: Homicide is arguably one solution. Abandonment, abortion, DNA testing also seem like viable solutions. It is important to note that DNA testing is a recent technology, so human evolution has not yet adapted to the existence of this technology, and so our psychological mechanisms are unlikely to factor this option in. Homicide is a very aggressive solution, yet it is commonly used. This is for several reasons. For one, severe aggression imposes a high cost on sexual infidelity. Another reason is to create reputation and precedence which would deter future partners from sexual infidelity.

Just as the case of a sterile person having sexual desire seems misplaced. Honor can at times be misplaced, and sometimes even go plainly wrong. In the case of a husband killing his wife, some anomalies exist. What if the woman was sterile? What if she was using birth control? What if she was menstruating? These are situations where sexual infidelity might seem inconsequential, yet Honor is provoked because it is a psychological mechanism that is experienced independently of its purpose.

There are cases where Honor has obviously gone wrong. The most obvious example is suicide practiced by the Samurai as a form of Honor. This form of Honor is very counter-productive and provides no survival value, quite the contrary! There are other cases which are not as obvious. For example, Honor crimes committed against female family members. While in the case of a husband killing his wife, the reasons are pretty much obvious. It is much less obvious why a father would be concerned about sexual infidelity, premarital sex, or illegitimate children of his daughter. From an evolutionary perspective, immediate family members protect each other because they share some genes. Killing one's offspring seems like a waste of the time and resources invested in the upbringing of the offspring. However, this kind of behavior is not as clear as the case of Samurai suicide. At this point, the concept of Honor systems plays a major role.

Emergence of Honor Systems

Individuals in a society interact, and interactions lead to divergence of interests and creation of conflicts. Let's take the example of a father killing his daughter for premarital sex as a case study. In this scenario, it is clear that a parent has no immediate reason to make such a response. In fact, at first glance it might seem like a counter-productive behavior. However, once we realize that this parent lives in a society where individuals have their own agendas and honor codes the picture changes. The parent has invested time and effort in the upbringing of his offspring. But this interest does not end at his immediate offspring, but also in the offspring of his offspring. So given that men have developed psychological mechanisms that makes them avoid non-virgin women as partners, conflict of interests arises. Even though the parent may not have immediate concern of who the father of his grandchildren is, he is still concerned that his daughter procreate because a dead-end offspring has very little survival value. As a consequence, a need to protect the investment in his offspring arises. This example shows how Honor codes of the individuals is influenced by the Honor codes of other individuals who they interact with. The result of this process is an Honor system.

It becomes obvious that interactions between members of a society shapes and reshapes their conception of Valuables and the Honor codes that they have, and adapts to situational circumstances that the individual faces during their course of life.

Emergence of Law and Order

As societies progress, Honor systems become unwritten laws that societies abide in their day to day life to avoid aggressive conflict. However, as the social order among these societies keeps advancing, those unwritten laws usually transform into written laws that are used to keep order in those societies. While it might be a normal occurrence in some societies to shoot thieves that break into one's house to protect one's property, this type of transgression is now customarily handled by the police and courts to settle those sorts of conflicts.

In a civilization of law and order, it is usually discouraged that people take the law into their own hands and seek retribution. However, there are occasions when the law does not satisfy the needs of the individuals, and consequently, some individuals become determined to enact retribution outside the framework of the law.


Ghaith said...

That's been an interesting read, I've got a couple of comments:

First, I think the presented definition of Honor is limited to a very particular subset of a broad range of activities that the term can be used to describe. In particular, your definition limits these to aggressive behavior and acts which result of threatening one's valuables. A more general description can include all sort of activities that strive to maintain one's (or even a group of individuals') valuables. For example; a host providing good hospitality and care to random needy guests is commonly considered honorable. For this particular example, the valuables can be one's personal image of their benevolence or sense of community.

Secondly, while hidden psychological mechanisms do indeed shape our behavior and may affect our response when it comes to preserving our valuables, I think Honor is more influenced by social norms and that trying to explain it from a sociological POV makes more sense than describing it as an evolving genetic trait with a survival value. Modern humans behave very differently when it comes to preserving their valuables (e.g. Honor crimes are much more common in particular societies) while survival instincts (like say sexual desire) are almost universal. In some cases (like the Samurai suicide example you provided), defending honor can be at odds with survival.

Devil's Mind said...

I agree with that the definition is limited. However, I felt it was important to narrow down the scope of Honor, to keep discussing it at manageable levels.

So the definition is meant to show the meaning of honor in the contexts of this post, rather than in general use.

Well, I think that Honor has both elements working at the same time. Certain examples have a focus on the individual, while other examples cannot be explained without the context of a society.

And the part where I address "Emergence of Honor Systems" is intended to give that sociology perspective.

"In some cases (like the Samurai suicide example you provided), defending honor can be at odds with survival." - This is because psychological mechanisms are heuristic, not optimal solutions.

And finally, I think that Honor is pretty much universal. Of course, the specifics may not be universal... Like the example of Honor crimes, which indeed is not universal. Honor codes or specific systems of honor are not universal, and the expression of honor is not universal, but the general concept of honor is pretty much universal.