In my last post I talked about the key traits of manipulators and how parasites, both human and nonhuman, excelled at this strategy (read here). However, manipulation takes time and effort that some would rather avoid. The solution? Steal. Big or small, kleptoparasites bypass the rules and steal the hard earned spoils of others. The interesting thing is that kleptoparasitism is a strategy that is remarkably common in other animals, especially when it comes to food. And let's face it, it's pretty common in humans too, though we might call it kleptoparasitism of “resources”.
There are a few approaches that we share with other species that are worth talking about. The most obvious one is direct theft through bullying. Indeed, the national symbol of the United States, the bald eagle, is a notorious intimidator and thief, but I want to zero in on carrion crows. We know corvids are smart and a recent study reveals that crows have consciousness, so we would expect their ability to assess cost-benefit to also be high and some individuals decide it’s cheaper to attack other birds and steal a tasty morsel.
At one location in Spain, these crows became such a menace that many other types of birds changed their entire schedule just to eat in peace. We often do the same thing with people that bully us into giving them our valuable resources, including time. Avoidance seems easier than confrontation. People like this become harder to avoid as we scale up from our own individual relationships, which we have more control over, to work or other institutionalized entities.
Some kleptoparasites prefer to avoid the risks associated with a direct attack and instead do their stealing in secret. How does this play out in other species? If you’ve ever spent any time watching squirrels as they prepare for winter you may have noticed that they stash food, often burying it in the ground. What is impressive is their recall. Any given squirrel may be able to relocate and retrieve about 95% of their stash. Of course it helps if they keep everything in one place, but it's often safer to hide their resources in many different places. Why? Other squirrels watch where the food gets buried and then rush in and steal it, only to bury it somewhere else. Mind you, the thieving squirrel is not starving and in desperate need of food. It simply is using a strategy that may pay off from time to time. At the same time, this is still a risky approach. If the offender gets caught, a relentless and punishing chase ensues, even if the nut is never returned to the original owner. That's because it's a matter of principle and the thief cannot be let off scot-free. On a day to day basis most of us aren’t being robbed, which is a relief. However, parents often have to teach their kids not to steal by levying consequences, offices have to deal with workers stealing supplies, and nationally, we may feel like an angry squirrel when individuals or corporations steal through Ponzi schemes and avoid paying taxes by using offshore accounts or other loopholes. This relates to how important fairness is to us (and other species) which I write about here.
One final strategy that I want to address is using fear tactics to create opportunities for theft. Some kleptoparasites specialize in this approach. The Greater Racket-tailed Drongo concentrates on sowing fear through deception for the sole purpose of stealing. They do this by giving out false alarm calls that danger is present when it's perfectly safe.
We and other species are hard-wired to pay attention to warnings of danger. We are angered by people that cry wolf because it interferes with our ability to discern safety from danger. The drongo capitalizes on this by sending out a warning call that danger is imminent, which startles other birds, causing them to drop their food and flee to safety. This “crying wolf” is deliberate and the drongo knows there is no danger present. The fascinating thing is that when scientists analyzed the patterns of their calls, they found that were slightly different from true alarm calls and shared some characteristics with aggressive calls. Similarly in humans, a true warning and a false warning are very similar, but if you pay attention, you might be able to detect the aggression lying just beneath the surface of the false message. Preying upon people’s fears is a common kleptoparasitic approach in humans. Seniors and other vulnerable individuals are especially at risk, but we also see this play out at larger scales of organization.
The big difference between us and other species is that even in other species where kleptoparasitism it is incredibly common no individual uses this strategy exclusively. This is because it is not a stable strategy. There is too much risk and it doesn’t pay as a catch-all approach. This doesn't hold up for humans, where there are some individuals who spend their entire lives being kleptoparasites, either in secret, as a bully, through fear-mongering, or some combination thereof. And it is incredibly common among governments. Why is this and how does it happen? In Guns, Germs, and Steel, author Jared Diamond, suggests kleptoparasitism, which he calls kleptocrats, emerges as a stable strategy in human government under certain conditions. These include generating an ideology that rationalizes kleptoparasitism, disarming the public while arming the elite (e.g., militarizing the police), touting law and order and economic gains as the path to happiness, and providing financial incentives to people that perpetuate the thievery at the governmental scale. These are indeed common traits of kleptoparisitism left unchecked.
There are ways to counter swindlers in our own lives and at the level of society. We do have a lot of control over our personal lives, so the the first thing to do is avoid bullies where possible and choose the company you keep very carefully. Be wary of individuals that try to control you through fear and that prey upon your worries and concerns. This alertness must scales up to levels of government, whether it's local, regional, national, or international. Be especially wary of entrenched ideologies that justify individuals or entities that steal and perhaps most importantly, reflect on your personal values and refuse to set them aside because you are promised a piece of the stolen pie.