Why is science academia so heavily slanted toward one political party in the last generation while private sector science is not? Why, in 1999, would the lead authorship of an IPCC report chapter be someone who had just gotten their PhD, something that would have been an outcry if it had been done at the NIH or the NSF?

An article in Human Nature says a lack social and political accountability make it easy for people to favor their own and penalize outsiders. They argue that more oversight and government control are the solutions.

"If you don't have well-functioning governments then you need these kinds of motivations, because then you're doing what's best for your group and for your local community," says CIFAR (Canadian Institute for Advanced Research) Senior Fellow Joseph Henrich (University of British Columbia), the co-principal investigator on the study. "You're just trying to survive in a world where there's no a higher-level governmental institutions you can depend on."

The study, done in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Fiji, China, Iceland and the United States, tested motivations using a game. Researchers gave subjects half a day's wages in cash and placed them before two cups. They told the subjects that the money placed in one cup would go to an unspecified member of their community or group at the end of the game, while the money in the other cup would go to an outsider.

Played fairly, the game would result in both cups having the same amount of money at the end. Researchers made sure individual players knew that no one could see them cheating while the game was being played. But statistical analysis after the game was over detected whether allocation biases or "cheating" had taken place.

The study found that people from countries with stronger government control followed the rules, while people from countries with less control by elites in institutions were biased in in favor of community members.

From the government deemed least effective, Bangladesh, to the one deemed most effective, the United States, participants showed a significant decline in favoritism toward their own group. In a Bangladeshi village, the subjects allotted 55.7 per cent of the money to their fellow villagers. At a U.S. church, the congregation ended up with 50.1 per cent of the share.

"In a world with well-functioning institutions, this gets inside of people and actually affects their basic motivations, even when they're in a situation when no one is watching," Henrich says.