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Internet Rage, the Flip Side of Selfless Heroism

Amanda Knox promotes her new book “Waiting to Be Heard” on “Good Morning America” on May 1, 2013.Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

Human nature is one of those aspects
of the world that can seem inexplicable, too varied and complicated to be pinned
down by overarching explanations. On the one hand our species includes people
like Garrett O’Hanlon, who was standing on a Manhattan subway platform one
recent night when someone passed out onto the tracks right in front of him.
Without a moment’s thought, he jumped down to rescue the man. Others joined
him, and together, this instant team lifted the guy out of harm’s way, right
before an oncoming train came roaring into the station. Afterward, O’Hanlon was
surprised by the attention he got. Risking his life to save a stranger
was no big deal, he says: “To me, that’s just what people do.”

On the other hand, human beings also
get involved in a different form of instant community: The bile-spewing haters
who unite online to obsess over high-profile criminal cases. Scott Peterson,
convicted in 2005 for killing his pregnant wife, had a vindictive following, as
did Casey Anthony, the Florida mother acquitted of murder in 2011 in the death
of her baby daughter. In a recent piece on Slate (and
a related Kindle single titled “Trial by Fury”), the writer
Douglas Preston describes the fanatical digital mob focused on the American
college student Amanda Knox, convicted of murder in a lurid trial in Italy:

The extreme viciousness of the anti-Amanda commentariage is
startling. There are countless statements calling for the murdering, raping,
torturing, throat-cutting, frying, hanging, electrocution, burning, and rotting
in hell of Amanda, along with her sisters, family, friends, and supporters… The
anti-Amanda universe coalesced around three websites devoted to seeing her
punished. The administrators of these sites and their followers were utterly
and completely obsessed by hatred for Amanda. It had literally taken over their
lives.

The observation that humans can act
like angels or like creeps isn’t exactly news. The surprise is that these two
ways of being may have the same origin: our extraordinarily cooperative nature.
A cluster of anthropologists, economists, and psychologists proposes that the
same psychology that permits us to engage in heroic acts of self-sacrifice and
form enormous cooperative societies also gives rise to the desire to punish,
retaliate, and destroy what we find immoral. If we did not have this impulse to
make people pay for what they’ve done wrong, these social scientists believe,
our societies (and our urge to help others) would quickly disintegrate. 

If millions of chimps were on the Internet, they might look at porn or pictures of cats, but they’d never bond together in mutual hatred of a stranger.

The key is “altruistic
punishment”—the urge to retaliate against people who break social rules.
Mathematical models suggest that our willingness to punish rule-breakers is the
glue that maintains our cooperative societies. Without this tendency, our societies
would be overrun with cheaters and freeloaders, who take advantage of
benevolent people like the subway rescuers without ever reciprocating. But if
some group members are willing to punish those who break the rules, cooperative
order can be maintained. Altruistic punishment seems to be ubiquitous: A study of 15 small-scale societies across
the globe led by the University of British Columbia anthropologist Joseph
Henrich found that people from every culture punish cheaters.

It also seems to be something that
only human societies do, says Michael Tomasello, the co-director of the Max
Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Tomasello’s
research, which I wrote about for the debut issue of Nautilus, seeks to explain the deep similarities and striking
differences in human and ape cognition. In his thinking, altruistic punishment
shares roots with other uniquely human behaviors, such as our ability to
collaborate and our capacity to create and teach culture. Chimps, smart and
sociable as they are, do none of these things. A chimp who sees another chimp
cheating a third individual couldn’t care less, explains Tomasello in his
recent book Why We Cooperate:

If one chimpanzee steals food from another, the victim will
retaliate by preventing the thief from keeping and eating the food. But so far…
we have not witnessed any comparable behavior from observers. Individuals do
not try to prevent a thief from enjoying his bounty (or to inflict any other
kind of negative sanction) if he stole 
it from  someone else. [88]

There will never be a chimpanzee
Amanda Knox, because chimps simply aren’t interested in moral transgressions in
the abstract. If millions of chimps were on the Internet, they might look at
porn or pictures of cats, but they’d never bond together in mutual hatred of a
stranger.

Conversely, they’d never be able to
live in densely packed cities as we do, utterly dependent on the cooperative
actions of millions of people we’ve never met. My conversations with Tomasello
and his collaborators convince me that as cruel as we may be, what’s still a
bigger surprise is our exceptional ability to get along with each other—to help
and cooperate with each other, even with strangers, in ways that no other
species can even approach.