Robin Hood Psychology

We may be predisposed to steal from the rich and give to the poor.

Most summer movie heroes have an uncontroversial moral mandate: Beat the bad guys; save the city; “With great power comes great responsibility.” Robin Hood’s crusade is more divisive: He steals from the rich and gives to the poor, redistributing wealth in favor of a more equitable society.

On opening weekend of Ridley Scott’s film adaptation (starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett), the climate for Robin Hood’s moral brand seems bleak—”socialism” has become a dirty word in America. But while Robin Hood’s ideals are politically controversial, researchers in psychology and related fields are finding that humans seem inclined to engage in Robin Hood-like thinking, which they often call “egalitarian motives,” “inequity aversion,” or “variance reduction.” In fact, there’s a growing body of evidence that, despite appearances, we’re Robin Hoods at heart.

To measure our attitudes toward inequality, researchers conduct “ultimatum games,” a form of experimental economics frequently cited by journalists and pop psychologists to debunk the idea that we always act rationally. In an ultimatum game, the first test subject is given money that he must divide between himself and a second subject. The second subject then gets the opportunity to take the deal or to reject it—leaving both subjects with nothing. It turns out that people are inclined to reject the deal when the split is very unequal, even though they’d be better off taking what they can. The conclusion: People are willing to sacrifice their own income to punish those who don’t distribute incomes equally.

Other studies have gone one step further, examining our willingness to redistribute wealth actively. In a 2007 study, for example, James Fowler of the University of California-San Diego, and a team of researchers gave 120 college students different, randomly generated amounts of money. After dividing the students into small groups, they gave them the opportunity to do nothing or to alter their fellow group-members’ incomes by paying one monetary unit to either increase or decrease another player’s wealth by three units. The subjects were then shuffled around into new groups and allowed to alter incomes again. (The process was repeated several times.) Overall, 71 percent of the reductions were targeted toward wealthier people, and 62 percent of the increases were given to poorer people. “Not only are people willing to punish the rich they’re willing to reward the poor,” Fowler told me in a recent interview. He has replicated the study several times and always finds similar results.  

The Robin Hood impulse isn’t just a modern quirk: Anthropologists have found that it dates back to early humans. The expert in this area is Christopher Boehm, whose 1999 book Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behaviorexplains how, as far back as 6 million years ago, rank and file members of society protected egalitarianism by ganging up on alpha males whenever they emerged. In two more recent papers, Boehm—who uses observations of contemporary primitive societies as models for how our ancestors lived—writes that humans became even more egalitarian about 250,000 years ago, when they began hunting in groups. “You cannot have a single alpha male eating up all the meat,” Boehm explains, “because they have to hunt as a team, and when the rest of the team isn’t nourished, everyone loses out.”

Primatologists have even found egalitarian impulses in nonhuman primates. In 2003, Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal published a study entitled “Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay,” which found that brown capuchins refuse a lesser reward (a cucumber slice) when another capuchin gets a better one (a grape). This year, a paper Brosnan co-authored with four other researchers in Animal Behaviour found that the rich chimps also noticed the inequality—they were more likely to refuse the better reward (a grape) when their partner got a lesser one (a carrot this time). It’s possible, Brosnan argues, that the chimps behaved in this apparently self-abnegating manner for a self-serving reason—they were afraid of getting beaten up when they went back to their social group. But the chimps still reacted to the inequality. According to Brosnan, monitoring inequality may help primates maintain cooperation. If two chimps are working together, and one is getting more out of it than another, they want to erase the gap so that the cheated partner doesn’t walk off the project.

Our Robin Hood impulses aren’t just vestigial—spurred by laboratory experiments but otherwise dormant—they still show up in the real world. Take Internet piracy, for instance. According to a 2001 New York Times report on a piracy ring, the people who stole software from their firms and handed it to pirates to post for free on the Internet viewed themselves as “Robin Hood” figures, stealing from the rich (the company) to give to the poor (themselves and other consumers like them). Other evidence abounds. Recently, three researchers—Anat Keinan (at Harvard), Donald R. Lehmann (Columbia) and Hannah Chang (now at Singapore Management University) studied this issue by conducting surveys and experiments with college students and observing online discussions of piracy. Their working paper, “Robin Hood Is Alive: The Perceived Morality and Social Acceptance of Pirated Products and Counterfeits Usage,” found that consumers’ feelings on the subject depended on the size of the company being stolen from—people who take from large companies often use an “anti-corporate” justification and feel less guilty, whereas pirating from a small company induces a lot more guilt.

Given these impulses toward Robin Hood-like behavior, you might think redistribution wouldn’t have such a bad reputation in America. But, of course, it’s not that simple. Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, has studied our political beliefs via surveys conducted at “Everybody wants fairness,” he explains, “but fairness is such a tricky concept because there are many versions.” Liberals prefer equality, when everyone has the same number of dollars. Conservatives prefer equity, when the ratio of what a person puts in to what he gets is the same for everyone—basically, that everyone gets what he or she deserves.

Fowler, on the other hand, believes that on the subject of redistribution, liberals and conservatives are more similar than we think. In one version of the public goods games mentioned earlier, he and his colleagues found that people who are in a political party of any kind—Democrat or Republican—are more likely to redistribute incomes than people who are not party members. “Everyone agrees that there should be some redistribution, but we disagree on how it should be done,” Fowler says. “Republicans trust the market more. Democrats trust the government a little bit more.”

This distinction may reveal why Robin Hood’s appeal cuts across party lines: He has liberal goals but accomplishes them with conservative methods. Instead of operating within the government, he’s against it, creating clever plots to foil a villainous bureaucrat, the Sheriff of Nottingham. reportedly downplays the redistribution angle and portrays Robin Hood as a veteran returning home from a war against Muslims, perhaps enhancing his universal appeal”>  He is a vigilante, operating outside of the system, going against the law to enforce his own moral code. Now that sounds like a summer movie hero.

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